Maine lawmakers made history in April when they agreed to fund the state’s first five public defense attorneys. Nearly four months later, the agency tasked with overseeing those attorneys still isn’t able to hire or begin training.

Maine is the only state without a public defender’s office. Even with the five new positions authorized by the Legislature, most cases still will be covered by reimbursing those private attorneys who sign up to represent Mainers who can’t afford their own lawyers. Those attorneys are overseen by the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

During a meeting of the commission Monday, members voted on a series of requests for lawmakers to consider over the next two years that would more than double the commission’s current budget from roughly $28.1 million to $62.1 million, the Maine Monitor reported.

As the commission voted on requests to create four new public defender offices and to increase the hourly rate that private attorneys are paid for commission work, members asked the commission’s executive director how far along commission staff were in getting the agency’s first public defense team off the ground.

“‘Nowhere’ is where we are with the five positions,” Justin Andrus told the commission Monday.

After submitting job descriptions and salary proposals for the five public defender positions in early June, Andrus said staff for the commission were notified a couple weeks ago that the Bureau of Human Resources was not going to approve their proposals because of a request that the attorneys earn the same pay as district attorneys.


Though Andrus said he and the deputy director for the commission “worked with HR contacts to make sure that what got submitted was acceptable,” they were told that the commission didn’t have the authority, according to the legislation passed, to pay the public defenders at the same rate as district attorneys.

As the commission waits for its first five dedicated attorneys, private attorneys willing to do the work continue to drop off. As of Aug. 16, there were 247 private attorneys working on cases for the commission, but only 186 attorneys are still accepting assignments to represent low-income Mainers.

Rep. Thom Harnett, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee that created the legislation for the five positions, said putting defense attorneys on a level playing field with the prosecution was the group’s intention.

“The goal was to set up something that was akin to how the district attorneys were funded in the various prosecutorial districts,” Harnett said.

Aimee Rice, the marketing and operations manager for the Bureau of Human Resources, did not respond to voicemails Tuesday requesting more information on the bureau’s concerns about the attorney job descriptions.

“We certainly wanted people hired by the end of this year,” Harnett said. “I would like them hired yesterday, but that’s not happening.”


Low pay and long hours can “take a toll” on lawyers, some of whom are representing Mainers in high-stakes situations where they risk being locked up for 20 to 30 years.


With a shortage of attorneys across the state and especially in the state’s rural communities, many Mainers facing criminal charges are being denied their constitutional right to representation. Andrus told commissioners that 10 people remain without counsel in Aroostook County jails, where earlier this year the commission learned of 23 people who were without an attorney.

“The only reason we know this about Aroostook County is because we got triggered back in April to start paying close attention to some specific things in Aroostook County,” Andrus told commissioners Monday. “You should not infer that that’s the only place that is. You shouldn’t necessarily infer that the problem is broader than that, either.

“We just don’t have the ability to know,” he said, adding that the commission lacks the staffing necessary to audit other locations.

Lawmakers agreed to make $965,000 available for five attorneys, whom the commission will dispatch to areas where there’s need. Democrats and Republicans from both chambers agreed to use money left over from an approved budget, which originally didn’t include any of the items passed out of the Judiciary Committee related to the commission’s work, including a pilot public defender’s office in Kennebec County and hourly rate increases for rostered private attorneys.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine announced it was filing a lawsuit against the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services for failing to adequately represent the state’s poor defendants. In July, the Kennebec County judge considering the case agreed to grant the ACLU’s six plaintiffs class-action status.

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