By Samantha Hogan of The Maine Monitor
A veteran attorney on the state commission that oversees public legal services has resigned, saying that Maine’s executive and legislative branches “don’t give a damn” about the defense of the state’s poorest defendants.
Bob Cummins was appointed in 2019 by Gov. Janet Mills to serve on the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, which oversees the state’s defense of adults and juveniles who cannot afford to hire attorneys. Cummins, 89, is a career defense attorney and lawyer at the Portland-based law firm of Norman, Hanson and DeTroy.
Cummins said he faced an “irreconcilable conflict” between his professional career and the state’s commitment to improving its indigent legal defense system. He said the state had not acted on reports that offered “the chance to effect true reform.”
“There are a host of reasons for this misfeasance but it seems to boil down to a ‘I just don’t give a damn attitude,’ ” Cummins wrote in his resignation letter on Wednesday.
The governor’s office refuted Cummins’ claims, pointing to increased funding for MCILS in the state budget, higher hourly wages for court-appointed attorneys, and $4 million earmarked in the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan to pay for counsel fees supported by Mills and lawmakers during her term in office.
“We are sorry to learn that Mr. Cummins feels this way. However, we respectfully disagree with his assessment that the executive and legislative branches ‘do not give a damn,’ ” said the governor’s spokesperson, Lindsay Crete.
“The governor has and will continue to work with the Legislature to improve the delivery of legal services to low-income people in Maine to ensure their constitutional right to counsel — a right that she values and has delivered herself as someone who has repeatedly represented low-income clients throughout her own career.”
Mills and Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, plan to identify and nominate a candidate to fill Cummins’ seat, Crete said. There are now two vacancies on the nine-member commission.
Commissioner Ron Schneider said Cummins’ departure was unfortunate though he respected the decision.
“He was an important voice on the commission and he provided a valuable perspective,” said Schneider, who declined to comment on Cummins’ specific allegations due to a pending lawsuit.
The commission met the day before Cummins’ resignation. There were heated exchanges between retired Justice Donald Alexander, who was appointed to the commission in 2021, and Cummins about remarks that Maine’s defense system and MCILS are constitutionally inadequate, which Alexander called “insulting” and “very wrong.”
Cummins has said that Maine’s court-appointed attorneys are in “crisis.” He helped draft a plan to transition Maine to a public defender system in 2020, and it was endorsed by the commission at the time. A bill to open the state’s first trial-level public defender office was unanimously approved by the House and Senate in 2021 but hasn’t been funded.
In March, lawmakers made a new $1.7 million pitch to the state Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee to fund the opening of the public defender office in October. Funding remains uncertain.
In a letter to Mills and legislative leadership on Friday, chairman of the commission Josh Tardy asked that all of the proposed MCILS initiatives be funded, and the state revive unfunded proposals from 2020 and last year. It includes more staff, and a public defender office for appellate and post-conviction review cases, which lawmakers cut.
“We recognize that a properly provisioned indigent defense system is not inexpensive. It is also not optional,” Tardy wrote.
Any additional employees or new programs will have a “fiscal tail” that will increase the baseline budget of MCILS, said Tardy, a Republican and former state legislator. He added that there’s reason to be cautious about using surplus or one-time funding to increase the agency’s budget.
“The argument for funding the commission and its mission is compelling, constitutionally required and necessarily a priority, and we need to do more than just compete in our discussions with the Appropriations Committee and the chief executive … we need to prevail in our argument,” Tardy said.
Tardy had no comment on Cummins’ resignation.
The ACLU of Maine sued MCILS and its eight commissioners, including Cummins, earlier this year for its inaction to create an effective public defense system in alleged violation of defendants’ constitutional rights, The Maine Monitor previously reported.
“As a defendant in that lawsuit who is without the ability to bring it to a correct and proper resolution consistent with the mandates of the Constitution, I face a conflict that can only be resolved by leaving the Commission and by standing by my oath and by the side of the volunteer lawyers who unselfishly seek due process for the indigent accused,” Cummins wrote.
Cummins previously told The Maine Monitor he is interested in joining the state’s list of eligible court-appointed attorneys and defending criminal cases. He also is interested in applying to be the state’s first chief public defender, if a public defender office is opened.
“I appreciate attorney Cummins’ long history and dedication in the arena of indigent defense and the work he did on the commission,” said Justin Andrus, the MCILS executive director. “I look forward to seeing in what direction he takes the battle now, because I am confident his resignation does not reflect withdrawal from the playing field.”
This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor. The Maine Monitor is a local journalism product published by The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan and nonprofit civic news organization.