Leaders of the new state commission that oversees legal defense for the poor say a recent budget compromise should enable them to keep paying court-appointed lawyers into early June, the last month of the fiscal year.

But the added $200,000 for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services’ budget is only enough to keep the commission running, they say. It does not address long-term financial concerns and an ongoing $600,000 budget shortfall that was inherited from the prior administration.

“We are very gratified that the governor’s office, the Appropriations Committee and the Judiciary Committee worked with us,” said Ron Schneider, a lawyer with Bernstein Shur and chairman of the commission.

“We were able to avoid the kind of shortfall that could cause us to cease functioning,” he said.

Schneider and other leaders of the commission will keep a close eye on the books in the coming months as they try to fulfill their duties.

The commission differs from other state agencies and commissions because the Maine and U.S. constitutions guarantee quality legal representation to poor defendants who are at risk of going to jail. The state also is required to pay for lawyers for juvenile defendants and parties in child protection cases, and for cases involving involuntary commitment to a mental health facility.

Maine was the last state to form some type of independent agency to oversee legal defense for the indigent. That role had been handled since the 1960s by the state’s judicial branch, in a system that was plagued by inefficiencies and conflicts of interest.

When the Legislature created the commission in 2009, the annual budget for indigent legal defense was about $10.4 million. All of the money was supposed to be transferred to the commission when it began operating on July 1 of last year. By that time, though, the Legislature had cut the budget to $9.8 million.

“There was always a concern that we didn’t have enough money” from the start, Schneider said.

The commission faced yet another hit as budget talks began last month in Augusta.

The supplemental budget proposed by Gov. Paul LePage recommended a $98,000 cut for the fiscal year that runs through June 30. The commission would have run out of money in mid-May, said its executive director, John Pelletier.

Lawyers would have gone unpaid for about six weeks and the state would have been exposed to lawsuits on constitutional grounds. The commission might even have been forced to stop appointing lawyers, bringing Maine’s criminal courts to a grinding halt until the money started to flow again on July 1.

“We would have been getting further and further behind,” Pelletier said.

The commission’s leaders stated their case in hearings before the Appropriations and Judiciary committees in late January, then Pelletier and Schneider met with LePage’s advisors Ryan Low and Dan Billings. They came out of that meeting with an agreed-upon recommendation: $200,000 would be added to the commission’s budget for this fiscal year. The proposed budget for 2011-12 is $10,165,000, and for 2012-13 it’s $10,265,333.

“All in all, I feel that the people that we approached, the Legislature and the governor’s office, were really responsive,” Pelletier said. “We still have an accumulated shortfall. Had we not received any supplemental money, we were looking at a five- or six-week delay in payments at the end of the year.”

Rob Ruffner, a criminal defense lawyer from Portland who played a key role in the development of the commission, praised the commission’s staff and the governor’s office for the agreement. However, he said, the system will continue to operate on the brink of failure unless it is adequately funded.

“Just making sure there’s enough money to make it to the end of the year doesn’t fix anything,” Ruffner said. “If the caseload swings up again, forget it.

“There are no other tweaks to be made,” he said. “If the cases are important enough to be brought, they’re important enough to be dealt with properly. All of this is compounded by underfunding the district attorneys’ offices and underfunding the courts.”

The $50 hourly rate paid to lawyers who accept court appointments has not changed since 2000, when it was raised from $40 an hour.

Most of the court-appointed lawyers practice law by themselves or at very small firms. After their rent, utilities and any staff, their payments often come out to $10 an hour or less, Ruffner said.

Almost all of the lawyers put at least 75 percent of their time into defending indigent clients, Ruffner said. He is concerned that more lawyers will stop accepting appointments if the hourly rate does not increase, and if the state cannot make payments on time.

Schneider said the hourly rate will have to be addressed within the next few years, to keep enough qualified lawyers for appointments.

 

Staff writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: [email protected]