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Speaker Talbot Ross says addressing judicial system issues a ‘top priority’

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross conducts business during a legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross conducts business during a legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

Maine's new House Speaker predicted Monday that the Legislature will take steps to address concerns about a crisis in the judicial system, including increasing the reimbursement rates for criminal defense lawyers.

Speaking during Monday’s Maine Calling program, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross said there is bipartisan support in the House and Senate to ensure that all Mainers have access to an attorney when charged with a crime, even if they can't afford one. Last legislative session, Democrats and Republican on the Judiciary Committee on increasing funding to the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which connects low-income defendants with attorneys.

But the pool of private lawyers willing to take on cases has declined since then. So the commission voted last year to ask lawmakers to nearly double the reimbursement rates – from $80 to $150 an hour – paid to private attorneys who participate in the program. Maine is the only state in the nation that has relied entirely on private attorneys to represent defendants who cannot afford their own attorney, although the commission recently hired the state’s first five public defenders to take on some of those cases.

"I believe that we will see some funding for MCILS in the governor's budget, soon to be released this week,” Talbot Ross said. “I think the Legislature itself will move to increase the hourly rates for attorneys but also to fully support access to justice that is required by the Constitution. I think that we will make sure that that is a top priority.”

A longtime advocate for criminal justice reform, Talbot Ross told Maine Calling that she believes lawmakers will work to make sure people have access to justice -- and that the courts have more tools to work through a massive backlog of civil and criminal cases.

“No doubt in my mind that we will get there, and we will get there soon,” she said.

Late last year, Maine’s top judge, Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill, talked about the “dual crisis” facing the court system because of the shortage of indigent defense attorneys and the backlog of cases. In her own appearance on Maine Calling, said the number of pending criminal cases was 60 percent higher than before the pandemic.

During the first day of the 2023 legislative session last week, Sen. Lisa Keim, a Dixfield Republican who has been sounding the alarm about the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, had criticized a $473 million emergency spending bill because she said it ignored the constitutional crisis.

“There are people that are either going to be in jail without representation and maybe should not be there, or there are going to be people who should be in jail that are not because there is no representation,” Keim said. “Our communities will disintegrate without justice . . . It is the essential duty of government to provide public defense and to make sure that we have a robust justice system that works for everyone.”

Talbot Ross said Monday that addressing Maine’s affordable housing crisis is another top priority of Democrats, Republicans and independents in the Legislature. Talbot Ross and Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash recently created a special housing committee to consider proposals to address the crisis. That emergency budget bill passed by the Legislature last week contained $21 million to help prevent evictions as a pool of federal housing assistance dries up.