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Gov. Mills and legislative leaders urged to approve emergency funding of $13.3 million for public defender

The shortage of lawyers accepting new cases is at a “crisis” stage and could collapse the statewide public defense system by spring.

PORTLAND, Maine — Editor's note: The video attached to this story was published Sept. 6. 

Maine’s shortage of lawyers accepting new cases is at a “crisis” stage and could collapse the statewide public defense system before spring if state lawmakers don’t make an emergency intervention, officials warned on Wednesday.

Commissioners who oversee Maine’s public defense system unanimously endorsed a request for an additional $13.3 million to raise the hourly compensation rate to $150 per hour for attorneys before the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2023. They also voted to send Gov. Janet Mills and legislative leadership a letter to ask them to convene a special session to approve the emergency funding.

“We are past an event horizon where things are going to get worse before they get better,” Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, said.

Maine is the only state that doesn’t employ public defenders. The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, instead contracts private lawyers to represent adult and juvenile defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorney. 

Maine’s unique defense system began to falter last month as people went days or weeks without an attorney being assigned to their case in Aroostook County, the Monitor reported. A man in the Penobscot County Jail also went several days without being assigned a replacement attorney, the Bangor Daily News reported. Lawyers have eventually been found for each case the commission is aware of, according to Andrus.

An all-time low of 163 attorneys were accepting new cases during September. That is down significantly from 410 lawyers who did court-appointed work in May 2019, MCILS data show.

“The sky isn’t falling. The sky has already fell,” Portland-based attorney Rob Ruffner said, remarking on a recent conversation he had with a judge about the shortage of lawyers doing court-appointed work.

Commissioners said they hoped that by raising the hourly compensation rate from $80 per hour to $150 per hour, then attorneys will return to MCILS. 

Maine is required by the state and federal constitution to provide lawyers for those who cannot afford to hire one. But commissioners said MCILS has historically been underfunded and unable to do all the things it should be doing.

The state government will soon begin work on a statewide supplemental budget. Andrus warned that waiting to raise the rate until March or April 2023 may be too late.

For the state Legislature to approve emergency funding for MCILS it may need to call a special session.

Commissioners were split, 5-2, on their decision to send a letter to Mills and legislative leadership to ask to consider a special session. Most said it was important to put the commission’s needs on the record. Commissioner Mike Carey voted against the letter, because of concern that the commission was wrongly injecting itself into politics. 

The diminishing number of weeks before the November election where state lawmakers and the governor would be on the ballot, also makes a special session unlikely, Commissioner Donald Alexander, a retired judge, said. He too voted against the letter. 

Alexander suggested the commission focus on other changes to entice lawyers to return, including advocating for better court scheduling and simplifying qualifications to work on certain case types. Commissioners did not take action on these suggestions on Wednesday.

Samantha Hogan covers government accountability and the criminal justice system for The Maine Monitor. Reach her by email with other story ideas: samantha@themainemonitor.org

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. 

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