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Judge allows lawsuit against state’s indigent legal system to move forward

In this Wednesday, May 31, 2017, file photo, a court-appointed "lawyer of the day" explains a legal implication to a person charged with a crime at Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Wednesday, May 31, 2017, file photo, a court-appointed "lawyer of the day" explains a legal implication to a person charged with a crime at Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland, Maine.

Attorneys for the state have failed in their initial efforts to block a lawsuit that alleges Maine is not providing adequate legal representation to low-income defendants.

The ACLU of Maine filed a class action lawsuit in March claiming that the state is violating the constitutional rights of defendants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers. The organization alleges that the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services has failed to provide “constitutionally adequate” representation to low-income criminal defendants and that the state lacks standards to guide, monitor and evaluate the attorneys who agree to represent those clients.

On Monday, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy rejected a motion from the Maine Attorney General’s Office to dismiss the case. In her order, Murphy disagreed with the state’s contention that the had not demonstrated “adequate harm” to individuals. Instead, Murphy found that “the harm alleged is sufficient to establish standing.” She also disagreed with the state’s argument that the lawsuit should be dismissed because, under the Maine Constitution, the court cannot order state government to provide additional funding to the commission.

“The State is correct that the Maine Constitution's separation of powers requirement is ‘much more rigorous’ than that in the United States Constitution,” Murphy wrote. “However, even Maine's robust separation of powers requirement does not prevent a court from ordering MCILS to comply with the Constitution if a constitutional violation has occurred.”

Murphy did, however, dismiss part of ACLU’s lawsuit that sought to force the commission to conduct formal rulemaking to govern the way the indigent legal system operates.

Maine is the only state that does not have a public defender's office. Instead, the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services contracts with private attorneys to represent low-income clients.

But the commission has been struggling to find enough attorneys willing to do the work, particularly in more rural areas. That trend, combined with the ACLU’s lawsuit, prompted state lawmakers to set aside money in this year’s supplemental budget to launch a small public defender’s office as a pilot project in Maine.

But during a commission meeting last month, executive director Justin Andrus said the number of attorneys statewide who were will to take on cases had fallen from 410 to 236 in three years while the number of cases rose 12 percent during that time. Of particular concern was the situation in Aroostook County, where a commission review found that 18 clients collectively waited more than 1,200 days combined without an attorney.

That prompted Commissioner Ronald Schneider, who is a Portland-based attorney, to state that this was “an actual denial of counsel.”

"We've already gone over a cliff in my opinion,” Schneider said during the May 24 meeting. “We're not going over a cliff, we've gone over a cliff because we have actual denial of counsel and caseloads that are a real problem."

The court has not yet set a date for the next proceedings in the lawsuit. But Zachary Heiden, chief counsel at ACLU of Maine, was pleased with Murphy’s decision.

“We are thrilled to move forward with the case,” Heiden said in a statement. “Maine is not meeting its duty under the Constitution to provide low-income people accused of crimes with access to quality legal representation. We are prepared to show this in court, and hold Maine accountable to its constitutional obligations.”