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Lawsuit over indigent clients in Maine headed to trial after settlement rejected

People wait outside the Biddeford District Court to make their initial court appearances.
Gabe Souza
Maine Monitor
People wait outside the Biddeford District Court to make their initial court appearances.

A judge has rejected a settlement in a lawsuit over the state of Maine's failure to provide attorneys to low-income defendants, meaning the complex constitutional case will now to go trial.

For the second time in five months, Maine Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy has rejected a proposed agreement between the attorney general's office and the ACLU of Maine over the state's indigent defense system. The parties have been trying to reach an agreement to avoid a trial over the ACLU's now 2-year-old class action lawsuit contending that the state is failing in its constitutional obligation to provide low-income clients with attorneys.

Murphy wrote that the first failure of the revised settlement is that it lacks any enforcement mechanism to make sure the state is connecting indigent defendants with attorneys. Murphy said the fact that nearly 400 defendants are currently without lawyers — and that roughly 100 of them are waiting in jail without representation — demonstrates that the situation is getting worse.

"The second is the failure of the (settlement agreement) to address in any serious way the constitutional problem that was emerging at the time this lawsuit was filed, even if it had yet to be quantified," Murphy wrote. "As it has now become clear that the number of unrepresented individuals increases week by week, it is beyond dispute that — as the Chief Justice recently stated in her State of the judiciary speech — 'we are in a constitutional crisis.'" 

Carol Garvan, who is legal director at the ACLU of Maine, said she believes the negotiations with the state over a possible settlement have been helpful.

Those negotiations led to agreements to set performance standards for the private attorneys working with the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services and to evaluate that performance. As part of the settlements, the state also agreed to provide additional training to attorneys and the commission pledged to advocate for a significant expansion of the state's fledgling public defender office.

But Garvan said her organization is also ready to take the case to trial. 

"We are committed to holding the state accountable for its obligation to make sure that people have counsel appointed when they are accused of crimes," she said. "They are assumed innocent until proven guilty and have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel."

Until recently, Maine was the only state that relied entirely on private attorneys willing to represent indigent clients. State lawmakers more than doubled the hourly reimbursement rate to $150 an hour but the ranks of participating attorneys has failed to increase substantively.

The Commission on Indigent Legal Services has started hiring a small team of public defenders with money provided by the Legislature and is asking state lawmakers for additional funding to roll out more public defender offices around the state.

Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill raised concerns about what she said was an ongoing "constitutional crisis" that has resulted in some defendants lingering in jail without representation.

"I hope that adding some public defenders, which is happening, will help," Stanfill told lawmakers last week during her State of the Judiciary speech. "But it's going to be a while before we see really robust results from that. And in the meantime, I fear the system really will collapse."

Under Murphy's timeline, the trial for the class-action lawsuit will begin this summer.