Bry Martin who is one of the few lawyers in the state who asked that his name be put on the list of attorneys willing to represent indigent clients facing jail time, Jan. 12, 2023. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Bry Martin is doing something that few are doing these days — he volunteers to represent people in court who are facing jail time but cannot afford to pay a lawyer.

Martin, 42, of Brewer left a teaching job at the University of Maine at Augusta to open his own law practice and put his name on the lawyer roster at the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. He has an office in Dover-Foxcroft.

Maine is experiencing a decline in the number of lawyers who volunteer to defend people in court when they cannot pay. The most recent report from Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services says the number is down 30 percent from a year ago.

“I saw the dearth of attorneys and decided I need to step up and become part of the criminal justice system,” Martin said. “I also wanted to try my hand at running my own firm.”

Maine is the only state in the country without 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 and in child protective cases.

In the calendar year 2022, 322 lawyers handled 31,956 assignments, averaging 99 assignments per counsel, according to MCILS’ annual report.

“As of January 10, 2023, there were 195 attorneys actively seeking assignments overall, including both those willing to accept case assignments and those serving in limited roles such as the lawyer-of-the day program,” it said. “This represents a decrease of 30 percent from the 279 attorneys seeking assignments at the time of the 2022 report.”

Justin Andrus, executive director of MCILS, said that the organization has done a lot of outreach to legal professionals and law school students over the past year. That has resulted in “a trickle” of new names on the commission’s roster, he said earlier this month.

Lawyers are paid $80 an hour, but the commission has recommended raising the rate to $150 an hour. The Legislature has not voted on the emergency legislation.

So far, Martin has qualified to take misdemeanors, minor felonies and drug possession cases. He has a dozen court-appointed cases currently. Martin may be assigned more complex cases after he has additional courtroom experience and training from the commission.

Martin was born and raised in Bakersfield, California. His father is a lawyer.

He earned his undergraduate degree from Stanford University and graduated from Harvard Law School.

Martin practiced real estate and environmental law in San Diego before catching “the history bug” and returning to graduate school.

It was while pursuing his doctorate degree at Notre Dame University that he met the woman who would connect him to Maine. Martin’s now wife, Janice Martin, 37, grew up in Milo and Bangor. She graduated from Bangor High School and is the daughter of retired District Court Judge Jessie Briggs Gunther, now 75 and living in Pittsfield.

The couple moved to Maine more than 3 years ago and have a 1-year-old daughter. Martin taught from September 2019 through May 2022 in the Justice Studies program on the Bangor campus of the University of Maine at Augusta.

Leaving that close-knit community for his own legal practice was a difficult decision, according to Martin. He continues to teach part time.

Martin has found the community of criminal defense lawyers working in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties to be “very friendly.”

“No one hasn’t helped me if I’ve had a question or an issue,” he said.

Unlike other criminal defense lawyers in Maine, Martin does not support the state going to a full-time public defenders’ office rather than the current system. He said that living and working in a large state like California, he’s witnessed firsthand the problems that arise when public defenders are overworked and underpaid.

“I think if we can keep what we have in Maine going, defendants will be better served and there will be a better quality of life for lawyers,” he said. “What the commission is trying to save is very valuable.”

Martin rents office space from the Hayes Law Office at 5 Lincoln St. in Dover-Foxcroft.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the university where Bry Martin met his wife.