ACLU sues over inequities in Maine’s public defender system
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sued the system that provides attorneys to those who can’t afford them on Tuesday, saying it fails to provide adequate representation.
The class action lawsuit contends there’s a failure to train, supervise and adequately fund a system to ensure the constitutional right to effective counsel for defendants. It seeks changes to ensure acceptable representation for low-income Maine residents.
“This failure has created two systems of justice: one for the wealthy, and one for the poor,” said Zachary Heiden, chief counsel at the ACLU of Maine.
The director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services declined to address the specifics of the lawsuit but agreed that there’s a need for improvements in training and funding.
All states are required to provide an attorney to criminal defendants who are unable to afford their own lawyer. But Maine is the only one that assigns private attorneys for all “indigent” cases. Other states have some version of a public defender’s office.
A scathing report in 2019 outlined significant shortcomings in Maine’s system, including lax oversight of the billing practices by the private attorneys commissioned to defend low-income clients.
The ACLU has sued in other states for changes. But the ACLU of Maine previously resisted doing so here in hopes that changes would be made.
The ACLU of Maine contends in the lawsuit, filed in Kennebec County, that the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services failed to set and enforce standards for attorneys and failed to monitor and evaluate them. Further, there was inadequate funding and training for participating attorneys, the lawsuit said.
The suit was filed on behalf of several criminal defendants, and names the commission and its leaders.
Justin Andrus, the commission’s executive director since January 2021, said he’s been pressing for authority and funding to hire additional staff for training and to hire public defenders.
“I have been asking for more tools from the time I took this position. I agree in principle with anyone who suggests that the defense function in Maine needs to be better resourced and that its structure needs to be updated to provide superlative performance, training and oversight,” he said.
He met Tuesday afternoon with the Maine Legislature’s Judiciary Committee as part of a long-running discussion about the system.
The ACLU of Maine has supported creation of a public defender’s office in the past. But the lawsuit doesn’t contain specific demands about how the state should reach its goal of instituting improvements, or an entirely new system, for meeting its constitutional obligations.
“There is no one change that anybody can make that’s going to bring the system into constitutional compliance. It’s going to require multiple changes on multiple levels,” Heiden, the ACLU chief council, said.