Judge rules that lawsuit against state indigent legal services can proceed

·4 min read

Jun. 6—A lawsuit accusing the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services of failing to adequately represent the state's poor defendants can proceed, a judge ruled Monday.

Attorneys for the state had tried to get the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine dismissed.

The ACLU filed its lawsuit on March 1, on behalf of five people in county jails, saying the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligations to ensure poor defendants have access to effective lawyers. The lawsuit argues that Maine also does not adequately fund its system to ensure that legal representation is made available.

Maine is the only state in the nation without a public defender's office. Although state lawmakers agreed during the last legislative session to create the state's first office for rural public defenders, most cases will still be covered by reimbursing those private attorneys who sign up to represent Mainers who can't afford their own lawyers.

But attorneys willing to take the cases have been dropping off the roster, citing low morale and low pay.

"While there are many skilled and committed defense attorneys in Maine, MCILS has failed in its constitutional and statutory obligation to supervise, administer and fund a system that provides effective representation to indigent defendants throughout the entire criminal legal process," the complaint says.

Assistant Attorney General Sean Maginus, representing the commission, argued before Kennebec County Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy in late May that the ACLU had not shown any evidence of defendants being denied counsel, and that a state court could not order a state agency to spend more on indigent legal services.

Murphy wrote in her ruling Monday that the ACLU has described enough harm to the five defendants, whom the complaint states "have been denied counsel, both actively and constructively, because Maine's system for providing counsel to indigent defendants is inadequate under Sixth Amendment standards."

She agreed with the state's argument that the court cannot order a state agency to receive more money, but said, "This does not prevent a court from ordering MCILS to comply with the Constitution if a constitutional violation has occurred.

"Moreover, ensuring adequate funding is only a part of the remedy sought," Murphy wrote. "The Court agrees with Plaintiffs that their requests for declaratory and injunctive relief leave ample room for the court to issue an order that accords with the Commission's role in the statutory scheme."

The state has until June 20 to file a response to the ACLU's complaint. The court will then schedule oral arguments on a motion to allow the five plaintiffs to represent all of the state's criminal defendants struggling with legal defense.

The Attorney General's Office, representing MCILS, declined to discuss the case or any ongoing litigation.

In a release, Zachary Heiden, chief counsel for the ACLU of Maine, said the group was "thrilled to move forward" with the lawsuit.

"Maine is not meeting its duty under the Constitution to provide low-income people accused of crimes with access to quality legal representation," Heiden said. "We are prepared to show this in court, and hold Maine accountable to its constitutional obligations."

Staff for the commission did not respond to a request to discuss the ruling Monday. In late March, a commissioner resigned over the lawsuit and what he called the commission's "indifference" to improvement.

Following the state's oral arguments in late May, interim Executive Director Justin Andrus declined to take a position on the case but rejected the argument that his agency is failing in its mission.

"Up to this point we've been able to successfully staff every case, we have consistently found counsel," Andrus said at the time. "Whether we can do it tomorrow is the question, and there will come a tomorrow when we can't do it."

In the most recent legislative session, he said, he petitioned for some of the same things the lawsuit says are necessary, including more money and resources for attorneys.

Lawmakers did not agree to his push to increase the hourly rate to attorneys from $80 an hour, but they did allocate roughly $1.25 million to create the state's first public defender's office, consisting of five attorneys to be dispatched anywhere in the state.