Judge rules lawsuit against state legal services for the indigent can continue

June 6 – A lawsuit accusing Maine’s Commission on Indigent Legal Services of failing to adequately represent the state’s poor defendants may proceed, a judge ruled Monday.

State attorneys had attempted to have the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine dismissed.

The ACLU filed its lawsuit March 1, on behalf of five people held in county jails, claiming the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligations to ensure poor defendants have access to effective attorneys. The lawsuit argues that Maine does not fund its system enough to ensure the provision of legal representation.

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

But lawyers willing to take the cases dropped from the list, citing low morale and low salaries.

“While there are many qualified and committed defense attorneys in Maine, MCILS has failed in its constitutional and statutory duty to oversee, administer and fund a system that provides effective representation to indigent defendants throughout throughout the criminal process,” the complaint reads.

Assistant Attorney General Sean Maginus, representing the commission, argued before Kennebec County Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy in late May that the ACLU had shown no evidence that the defendants were denied counsel and that a state court could not order a state agency to spend more on indigent legal services.

Murphy wrote in its decision Monday that the ACLU has described enough wrongs to the five defendants, who the complaint says “were denied counsel, both actively and constructively, because Maine’s system for providing an attorney to indigent defendants is inadequate by Sixth Amendment standards.”

She agreed with the state’s argument that the court cannot order a state agency to receive more money, but said, “That does not preclude a court from ordering the MCILS to abide by the Constitution if a constitutional violation has occurred.

“Furthermore, ensuring adequate funding is only part of the remedy sought,” Murphy wrote. “The Court agrees with the plaintiffs that their motions for declaratory relief and injunctive relief leave the court ample latitude to make an order consistent 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 allowing the five plaintiffs to represent all of the state’s defendants battling a legal defense.

The attorney general’s office, representing MCILS, declined to discuss the case or any pending litigation.

In a statement, Zachary Heiden, chief attorney for the ACLU of Maine, said the group was “pleased to move forward” with the lawsuit.

“Maine is failing in its duty under the Constitution to provide low-income people charged with crimes with access to quality legal representation,” Heiden said. “We are prepared to show that in court and hold Maine accountable to its constitutional obligations.”

Commission staff did not respond to a request to discuss the decision on Monday. In late March, a commissioner resigned following the trial and what he called the commission’s “indifference” to improvement.

Following state pleadings in late May, Acting Executive Director Justin Andrus declined to take a position on the case but dismissed the argument that his agency is failing in its mission.

“So far we have been able to successfully handle every case, we have always found a lawyer,” Andrus said at the time. “The question is whether we can do it tomorrow, and there will come a tomorrow when we cannot do it.”

In the last legislative session, he said, he asked for some of the same things the lawsuit says are needed, including more money and resources for lawyers.

Lawmakers did not accept his push to raise the hourly rate for attorneys by $80 an hour, but allocated about $1.25 million to create the state’s first office of public defender, staffed by five lawyers to send all over the state.

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