The commission that oversees legal services for Maine’s indigent criminal defendants is preparing to defend itself against a lawsuit alleging that its system through which it contracts with lawyers in private practice violates the Constitution.
The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services expects the complaint to be filed Tuesday by the ACLU of Maine, according to Chair Josh Tardy.
“We were put on notice that the lawsuit was going to be filed in a courtesy call from the ACLU of Maine,” he said Monday.
Tardy declined to comment on the lawsuit until he is able to read it.
The state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports the creation of an office in Maine that would employ public defenders, declined to comment Monday on whether it is suing the commission.
The organization has scheduled a press conference over Zoom at 11 a.m. Tuesday to make an announcement regarding litigation, but has not said what it is about.
The organization’s spokesperson, qainat khan, declined to comment Monday on a possible lawsuit against the commission.
Maine is the only state in the country without some sort of a public defender system through which lawyers are state employees. Instead, the state contracts with private lawyers through the commission to provide legal representation for people charged with crimes who cannot afford to pay an attorney.
The lawsuit is expected to argue that a more formalized system that includes standards, feedback and training for lawyers who participate is necessary to ensure that low-income Mainers receive the legal defense services they are guaranteed under the U.S. and state constitutions.
“We don’t have a system,” ACLU of Maine chief counsel Zach Heiden told the Bangor Daily News editorial board last summer. “We have 400-plus independent contractors with a system to pay them.”
Tardy said Monday that the commission is taking steps to address criticisms raised more than two years ago in a report by the Sixth Amendment Center and, more recently, by the Legislature. The group’s report found that the current system lacks safeguards to ensure quality legal representation and prudent financial oversight. These gaps in oversight have led to potential overbilling, inadequate performance by some attorneys and potential conflicts of interest, the center found.
Commission staff has drafted a report outlining some of the steps it would need to take to move toward a public defender system that would initially handle appeals to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and to employ several full-time attorneys who would travel to the more rural areas of the state where there’s a shortage of lawyers such as Aroostook and Washington counties.
The draft also proposes changing the name of the commission to the Office of Public Defense “to better align with the anticipated changes to the agency including the incorporation of various public defender offices and the change in the relationship between the agency and indigent persons who receive its services.”
The commission’s request for funding for a pilot public defender’s office in Kennebec County was not included in Gov. Janet Mills’ biennial budget.