The Legislature’s budget committee on Friday agreed to fund a small portion of the $8.1 million requested to address problems in Maine’s system for ensuring indigent clients have lawyers.
The bulk of the $1.24 million the Legislature’s appropriations committee approved — $966,000 — will go to fund five lawyers who will form a new rural defense unit, according to Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. Those attorneys will travel to underserved areas of the state, including Washington, Aroostook and Franklin counties.
The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, which met Friday to divvy up $12 million in unassigned funds, also appropriated $275,000 for access to legal research tools for lawyers who take court-appointed clients.
The commission oversees private attorneys who represent low-income people in criminal cases in which prosecutors are seeking jail time. Maine is the only state in the country without a public defender system through which lawyers are state employees. The commission has come under fire over the past few years for an alleged lack of attorney oversight and training. The backlog of criminal cases due to the coronavirus pandemic and heavy caseloads have also caused many Maine attorneys to stop taking court-appointed criminal cases.
The funding request sent from the Legislature’s judiciary committee to the budget panel included: $4.65 million to raise the hourly rate paid to lawyers from $80 to $100; $1.67 million to fund a public defender’s office with 17 lawyers and support staff in Kennebec and Somerset counties; $966,00 to pay for five roving public defenders who would serve rural areas; and $800,000 for training, legal research and mentors for new criminal defense lawyers.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sued the Maine Indigent Legal Services Commission in Kennebec County Superior Court. The lawsuit, which is being handled by Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy, argues that the commission has violated state laws and the state and federal constitutions by failing to set and enforce standards for lawyers who participate in the state’s program, monitor and evaluate those attorneys, ensure adequate funding for indigent clients’ legal defense, and provide ongoing training for the attorneys.
Those allegations echo reports about the commission from the Sixth Amendment Center and the Maine Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
Legally, a judge can’t order the Legislature to allocate funds, but if Murphy finds the delivery of indigent legal services in Maine is unconstitutional, that would pressure lawmakers to act.