A boycott by several Franklin County attorneys of court-appointed sexual assault cases has flopped in its bid to force higher pay rates from the state, because other lawyers took the refused cases.
Court-appointed attorneys in Maine have been paid $50 an hour for the past 15 years, and while they are set to get a $5 raise starting July 1, the “striking” attorneys said the raise was insulting compared to the $333 an hour the state pays private attorneys to defend Centers for Disease Control officials in an ongoing whistleblower lawsuit.
Attorney Walter Hanstein, an organizer of the effort to raise pay for court-appointed lawyers, said it was unlikely that attorneys would refuse all court appointments. Hanstein and attorney David Sanders asked lawyers to refuse sexual assault cases, a category that only a small group of attorneys are approved to take as court-appointed counsel in Franklin County.
However, the state commission assigned to match court-appointed attorneys and defendants has been able to provide a lawyer for every sexual assault defendant who qualified for a state-paid lawyer.
“The unfortunate thing is that throughout the state, the commission has been able to find lawyers that said they would take one of the cases, so the standstill we were hoping we would create wasn’t created,” said Hanstein by phone last week.
John Pelletier, executive director for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, said he did not have the exact number of cases that have come from Franklin County but said all defendants who qualify for and need a public defender are being represented.
The Franklin County clerk’s office said at least two sexual assault cases were assigned to court-appointed attorneys in the past two months: Johnathan Clark, charged with sexually assaulting multiple Franklin County boys, and Casey Braley, charged with sexually exploiting a minor. Clark’s attorney, Brad Grant, and Braley’s attorney, Philip Mohlar, did not respond to requests for comment.
“Not every lawyer I asked agreed to take one of the cases, but I was able to find lawyers for the cases,” Pelletier said.
The effort began two months ago when Hanstein and attorney David Sanders told the Franklin County clerk’s office that they would no longer serve as state-paid attorneys for low-income defendants charged with sexual assault, until the wage is raised from $50 to $70 per hour in all court-appointed cases.
The commission will hold a public hearing at the State House on June 10 on proposals to raise the rate for court-appointed attorneys to $70 per hour as of July 1, 2015, and to $75 per hour starting July 1, 2016.
The last biennial budget, the same pay increase proposal was given to the Legislature, which passed a $5 increase to $55 an hour starting July. Pelletier said the commission is once again presenting the proposal because they believe it would be fair compensation for court-appointed attorneys. He said while they are proposing a raise, they are also being budget conscious by asking for less than the market price or the $150 an hour paid to court-appointed attorneys in federal cases.
“Even at $75 an hour we would be well below the hourly wage in federal court,” he said.
Hanstein said that he is encouraged that attorneys who joined together on the issue are raising visibility of the issue.
“The more people understand that to do what I do is the same job as what they (court-appointed attorneys) do in federal court … the more likely people are to be comfortable with the idea of raising the rate,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that defendants facing jail time are entitled represented by an attorney before they can be sentenced to jail time.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 | [email protected]