Citing ‘urgency’, Maine’s legal service for the poor demands pay raise

The state’s indigent legal services are now in an “emergency” situation, according to the agency responsible for providing those services. Maine’s Commission on Indigent Legal Services now plans to ask state budget officials for $13.3 million to survive through next June.

Maine is the only state in the country without a public defender’s office. Although the state recently agreed to create its first team of public defense attorneys, most cases will still be covered by a roster of private attorneys, whom the state pays to represent Mainers who cannot attend. pay their own lawyers. The commission oversees this list.

The multimillion-dollar funding request, which the commission will vote on next week before submitting it to the state, would raise the hourly rate for those attorneys from $80 to $150 starting in October. Lawyers use these reimbursements to pay themselves and for overhead costs such as office costs and staff.

Executive Director Justin Andrus told the Government Oversight Committee Wednesday morning that the commission’s list of available lawyers was extremely short. On Tuesday, 163 lawyers were accepting new cases, compared to 280 lawyers available in January and 410 lawyers in 2019.

Andrus told lawmakers he hopes a raise will bring back some of those lawyers who left. He said the $150 hourly wage resolves a disparity between defense attorneys and state-funded prosecutors. He estimated that the “cheapest assistant district attorney” earned nearly $75 an hour, with no financial responsibility for staff or an office.

But to obtain new funds from the state budget, the governor or the majority of each legislative caucus would have to agree to call a special legislative session.

A spokesperson for Gov. Janet Mills’ office did not say directly whether the governor would support a special session. In an emailed response on Wednesday, they referenced other initiatives the governor has supported, including raising lawyers’ hourly rates from $60 to $80 in 2021 and hiring more staff. support to manage the commission.

“The governor appreciates the work done by the commission to improve billing oversight and accountability. She will consider requests for funding from the commission and continue to work with the Legislative Assembly to improve the delivery of legal services to low-income people in Maine to ensure their constitutional right to counsel – a right she values. and granted itself. , as someone who has repeatedly represented low-income clients throughout his own career,” said Lindsay Crete, spokeswoman for the governor.

Joshua Tardy, who chairs Maine’s Commission on Indigent Legal Services, told lawmakers Wednesday that he had spoken with the governor’s office about his agency’s immediate needs.

“The governor is aware of our need for additional appropriation and its urgency,” Tardy said. “…I agree that a special session is something the legislature and the executive branch should seriously consider.”

“Because you see the situation by January as dire if we don’t act sooner, one way or another?” said Senator Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield.

“I’m okay with that,” Tardy said.

The decline in the number of lawyers and the steady increase in the number of new cases make it more difficult for the commission to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide advice to poor Mainers.

Thousands of cases continue to languish in Maine courts due to a backlog related to COVID-19. According to the Maine Judicial Information System, there were 27,600 pending misdemeanor and felony cases in Maine as of September 9, 2022. There were only 16,988 pending cases as of September 2019, six months before the courts are starting to delay hearings due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Even if we didn’t lose lawyers, we wouldn’t have had enough people,” Andrus said at Wednesday’s meeting.

It was the commission’s fourth report to the Cabinet Oversight Committee, which first ordered an investigation into the agency in late 2019 after a study by the Sixth Amendment Center raised “serious concerns” about potential overbilling, low pay rates and poor performance by some lawyers.

Committee members agreed on Wednesday that their oversight of the commission would end, acknowledging significant improvements over the past three years.

Andrus, who took office in 2021, said his office had had “substantial success” with management reform, but he believes the commission’s ability to scale is being held back by a lack of resources – in particular to attract and retain enough lawyers.

In August, the commission sent the legislature a proposed budget of $62 million, more than double its current budget. The request includes the new $150 fee, as well as four new public defender offices. But even if the governor included that amount in his budget and lawmakers passed it, the commission wouldn’t have the money until later in 2023.

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