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Courts and Crime

Governor’s Plan to Overhaul Public Defender System Faces Opposition

AUGUSTA, Maine — Late in the last session of the Legislature, Gov. Paul LePage surprised many by proposing legislation that would develop a public defender system in the state.

Currently, lawyers in Maine are paid by the state to represent those charged with with crimes who can’t afford to pay a lawyer.

The governor’s proposal would create a public defender’s office similar to those in other states. The office would contract with lawyers to represent the poor.

Under the Constitution, if someone is charged with a crime and they cannot afford to pay for a lawyer, the state must provide a lawyer to provide for their defense.

For most of Maine’s history, judges appointed lawyers in private practice to represent those indigent defendants on a case-by-case basis. Under that system, costs fluctuated based on the number and complexity of cases and led to several supplemental budget requests.

But LePage wants more predictability in budgets, says Billy Thompson, an analyst with the governor’s Office of Policy and Management.

“For about the same cost as our assigned counsel system, Maine could have a system that allows for more budget stability and predictability while implementing more extensive oversight over the quality of services Maine indigent criminal defendants receive,” Thompson says.

Maine’s current system was established in 2009 by the Legislature, in which an independent commission oversees the lawyers that are appointed by judges to represent indigent defendants. They are charged with ensuring the quality of the lawyers and determining what they are paid per case.

The commission’s chairman, lawyer Stephen Carey, opposes the governor’s proposal.

“LD 1433 would dismantle all of that work by establishing a system run by a chief public defender whose position is entangled in the executive branch,” he says.

By entangled, Carey means the governor would not only would appoint the chief public defender but only the Governor could remove the chief public defender.

He says the current system can be improved and the commission has been working to improve it.

“Our rostered attorneys are more qualified, better trained and more closely supervised than they were under the previous system,” he says.

Individual attorneys and groups such as the Maine Bar Association, The Maine Trial Lawyers Association and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also testified in opposition to the proposal.

Saco Rep. Barry Hobbins, a Democrat and an attorney himself, says the bill as drafted has little support on the committee, but he says it has been important in spurring discussion about how best to provide indigent defense.

“Maybe it will encourage, especially with the crisis we have in the court system right now brought on by substance abuse issues that confront Maine, to get some of the experienced lawyers to maybe put their name on the list,” he says. “In fact, I am thinking of doing that myself.”

Hobbins says the committee will consider the bill in work session next month.