Chief Justice Says Maine Justice System ‘Fails’
Maine’s top judge said Wednesday that the state’s court system is failing criminal and civil courts and implored attorneys to help defend the state’s poor.
Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill and Indigent Public Defense Director Justin Andrus laid out an increasingly dire situation in Maine courts during a presentation to nearly 100 attorneys Wednesday at a meeting of the Maine State Bar Association. They asked attorneys to take cases and fill gaps in representation until the state increases funding for the judiciary and court-appointed attorneys.
“I haven’t slowed down the messages. We are failing,” Stanfill said. “We are failing in this state in our legal systems – criminal and civil, to be honest.”
The first questions Stanfill said lawmakers have asked him relate to the availability of lawyers and the backlog of open cases in court.
A partial halt to criminal proceedings due to the COVID-19 pandemic has created an overwhelming backlog of unsolved cases in state courts. The problem has been compounded by the lack of lawyers willing to represent indigent clients. Court clerks across the state are increasingly reporting that they cannot find attorneys available to represent defendants who cannot afford to hire their own. Some people go days or weeks without an appointed attorney, The Maine Monitor reported.
Maine is the only state in the nation without public defenders, although that will soon change with five public defenders expected to begin work before the end of the year. Maine has for decades relied entirely on private attorneys who voluntarily contract with the state to represent adults and children in criminal cases and some civil cases who cannot afford to hire their own attorney.
Frank Bishop, president of the bar association, said the shortage of defense attorneys for the state’s poor is a political issue that should be addressed by the governor and state lawmakers.
Governor Janet Mills, a Democrat, was re-elected for a second term on Tuesday. In the past, she did not initially support demands for a substantial increase in the state budget for court-appointed lawyers. The bar association plans to renew its efforts with state legislators in the joint judicial committee of the state legislature to either convene a special session within the next six weeks to increase defense spending on indigents, either fix it immediately in January, Bishop said.
Lawyers familiar with the system point to two potential solutions: immediately add $13.3 million to the budget to increase the lawyers’ reimbursement rate from $80 to $150 per hour or move to a public defender system at the county, supplemented by court-appointed private lawyers. .
“If the lawyers don’t make much of it, then the legislature won’t take it seriously,” Bishop told the group.
The true cost of providing indigent legal services has never been demonstrated to lawmakers, Stanfill said.
“This is a state that has chronically underfunded these systems and asking the bar to do even more won’t solve the problem, but we are asking for help,” Stanfill told the group.
Justin Andrus, executive director of Maine’s Commission on Indigent Legal Services, said the system currently needs about 280 additional full-time defense attorneys to meet the state’s indigent caseload. — or about 7% of attorneys actively working in Maine.
Maine has 3,830 active resident attorneys, according to the Board of Overseers of the Bar. Many lawyers do not deal with courtroom litigation or practice criminal law.
“What we’re talking about here is really just an assist. It’s not a solution,” Stanfill said. “We’re kind of desperate to get help wherever we can get it.”
The bar is holding two training events before the end of the year to help lawyers meet the basic requirements to be able to accept appointments to the court. To work on complex cases — such as homicide, sex offenses, violent crimes, drunk driving and cases involving minors — lawyers will need to demonstrate additional skills.
Tina Nadeau, a Portland attorney who accepts court appointments, wrote in an email after the meeting that a one-day training for litigants who do not currently focus on criminal law “is highly problematic and will not fill the gap between the need for more – qualified practitioners.
Nadeau said MCILS’ goal should be to re-attract experienced attorneys who focus on criminal law in handling court-appointed cases.
The goal is to build capacity and fill gaps until lawmakers adopt a systemic solution, Andrus said.
“The solution ultimately has to come from the rest of government,” Andrus said.
This story was originally posted by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization. To get regular Monitor coverage, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.
Little by little, the legislature diversifies