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Maine’s top judge makes plea for more attorneys to address ‘crisis’

Taylor Sampson
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Monday, May 22, 2017 photo attorney Taylor Sampson addresses the judge while defending indigent citizens at Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland, Maine. Maine is the only state in the nation without a public defender's office.

Maine's chief justice is asking more attorneys to represent low-income defendants as the state faces a “dual crisis" in the court system.

The state commission that provides free lawyers to criminal defendants who can't afford to hire one has been sounding the alarm about the dire situation for several years now. And this week, Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill of Maine's Supreme Judicial Court appealed to private attorneys to join Maine's shrinking pool of indigent legal defense lawyers.

"In case you didn't know, we are having a bit of a crisis of appointed counsel in this state,” Stanfill told members of the Maine State Bar Association during a virtual meeting. "We don't have enough lawyers who are willing to take these cases or are available to take these cases. And we, at the same time, are experiencing a crisis in the court system with a backlog -- particularly of criminal cases -- that is just overwhelming at this point."

Stanfill’s comments were first reported Thursday by The Maine Monitor.

Maine is the only state that does not have a public defender system, although a small public defender office is being created this year. Instead, the state has relied on private attorneys who agree to take on low-income clients in return for compensation.

Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, told the bar association that the number of private attorneys willing to take on new cases is down from more than 400 prior to the pandemic to just 160. State lawmakers recently increased the hourly compensation for participating attorneys from $60 to $80. But the commission is asking for an additional $13 million to bump up that rate to $150 an hour.

"We have counties at this point in which we have no local attorneys,” Andrus said. “In Washington County this morning, we have a person who will represent you if you are charged with murder. And we have no one else. So in Washington County, for example, we would be asking people to go from another place."

Andrus stressed that a Portland attorney who agrees to work with the commission would not necessarily be asked to represent clients in Washington County or other distant courts. Instead, it could allow the commission to alleviate pressure in some parts of the system and disperse attorneys in other ways.

The pandemic created a massive case backlog in the court system as courtrooms closed and jury trials were canceled. Stanfill said that new criminal caseloads are also rising, with felony cases up 80 percent compared to the caseload before the pandemic.

"We are at the point where I was thinking we are maintaining, and I kind of think we still are, but barely, if at all,” she said.

The commission received state funds this year to hire five public defenders for the first time to handle cases in more rural areas. Andrus said he hopes those public defenders will be hired before the end of the year. But he cautioned that they will not make a large dent in the caseload.