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Indigent legal defense commission asks lawmakers to approve $13M for ‘emergency’ situation

Members of a commission are asking state lawmakers to return to Augusta for a special session to approve an emergency infusion of cash to the agency that provides lawyers to low-income Mainers.

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services is asking for $13 million to head off what officials have described as an emergency situation. Maine is the only state that relies on private attorneys to represent low-income defendants. The number of private lawyers willing to work with the commission has fallen from more than 400 to less than 170 in the past 2 1/2 years, however. And the Maine ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit claiming the state is failing to provide adequate legal representation to low-income defendants, as required by the state and federal constitutions.

Commission officials have proposed increasing the hourly compensation provided to those private attorneys from $80 to $150.

“I don’t see a road to retaining who we have, or attracting anyone back or attracting very many new people, unless the rate is more appropriate,” Justin Andrus, executive director of the agency, told members of the board that oversees the commission.

The vote to ask that lawmakers consider a special session was not unanimous. Several commission members expressed concern that it was overstepping the group’s bounds. But the majority supported the move despite the acknowledgement of low odds of success.

“I think that the path to get to a special session is an unlikely one,” said commissioner Roger Katz, an attorney and former state lawmaker from Augusta who co-chaired the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. “But having said that, I think the need is there, the urgency is there. And if we are doing our job, we ought to be yelling that out as loudly as we can and as early as we can. And even if that does not result in a special session, perhaps it will set the stage for us going forward in the next session.”

Meanwhile, Andrus said his office is seeing a lot of interest from lawyers who want to join a new public defender's unit.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers provided money to hire five public defenders that would serve clients in mostly rural areas of Maine. The Commission on Indigent Legal Services sought the positions because the agency is struggling to find private attorneys willing to represent clients. Andrus said those job openings were just recently posted after his office worked with the Attorney General’s Office and human resources officials to resolve bureaucratic hang-ups over the positions and pay levels. The new public defenders will be paid the same as prosecutors, he said.

"We are getting applicants. We are getting calls. There is a ton of interest,” Andrus said. “We have local people, we have people from away. It is really fantastic."