A lawyer in a rumpled beige suit leaned over the courtroom’s jury box to confer one by one with his clients: two rows of men and women facing various charges along with what about half described as homelessness, mental illness or drug addiction.

All lacked their own lawyers, and all have a constitutional right to legal representation for charges that could mean jail time. On Wednesday, at Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland, two attorneys, including Merritt Heminway, volunteered to represent them.

Joe Moroz of South Portland sat in the audience to support his friend Melissa, whom he says is living on the street, battling drug addiction and prostituting herself. Moroz said the state’s constitutionally required indigent defense services are a lifeline to those who can’t afford a lawyer.

“They’re doing a service to the public,” said Moroz, noting that he’s received such court-appointed legal services himself.

But a system welcomed by the state’s poor has found itself in the midst of a political spat as lawmakers debate a $6.8 billion two-year budget proposal from Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who now only wants to fund the Commission on Indigent Legal Services through January without back pay for lawyers.

As a result of a shortfall that lawmakers created in the last budget deal, court-appointed attorneys who provide indigent legal services throughout the state are working without pay. Funding ran out last month, and several attorneys say it’s causing stress and uncertainty.


“We’re in full-blown financial crisis mode,” said Heminway, one of the state’s more than 400 court-appointed lawyers. He said that the $60 an hour that lawyers receive from the state to represent indigent clients isn’t enough to run an office.

LePage is calling for an overhaul of a system that he says doesn’t fully meet American Bar Association standards such as caseload limits, training, expertise and oversight over attorney quality. Lawmakers and lawyers have rebuffed his efforts to create a contract-based system, and the governor says he’s fighting back against an “inefficient status quo.”

“The right to counsel exists to ensure they receive a fair trial, it is not a ‘make work’ program for lawyers,” his original budget proposal reads.

But skeptics of LePage’s effort say funding is the issue. Maine Indigent Defense Center founder Robert Ruffner is calling for a state public defender representing indigent defense lawyers, and more resources for oversight, training and guidance.

“There aren’t any improvements to the system that will have any effect, any meaningful effect, that are free,” he said.

At least one attorney is declining to volunteer as a lawyer of the day to send a message to lawmakers.


“They’re scared to rock the boat because they feel there’ll be backlash legislatively,” said Portland lawyer Tina Nadeau of attorneys who haven’t joined her efforts.

She added a work stoppage could be too costly for lawyers who rely more heavily on court-appointed work.

The budget shortfall has also raised concern that uncertainty could repel lawyers from such work.

“We haven’t had a substantial amount of attorneys asking to come off rosters or refusing to take the work knowing they aren’t going to get paid right away,” said Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services Chairman Steven Carey. “My concern would be that could change.”

On the Legislature’s appropriations committee, Democrats and Republican Sen. Roger Katz said they support paying back the attorneys and providing two years of funding.

Democratic Rep. Denise Tepler said there’s support for studying the system, an idea backed by LePage and the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Heminway said he can’t imagine Maine’s scattered defense lawyers coordinating to protest the underfunded system, as has happened elsewhere in the nation.

He praised models like New Hampshire’s public defender office, but said for now, he’s concerned about the constitutional rights of the poor waiting behind bars.

“This is our mission in life,” he said.

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