Sunday, December 8, 2013
Lawyers hired by the state to represent people too poor to afford their own attorney saw their first line of hope dashed last week when legislators working on a supplemental budget declined to add money to the dwindling account used to pay the attorneys.
The account administered by the state commission that hires the private attorneys on a case-by-case basis is underfunded by an estimated $1.8 million and is on target to run out by mid-April, months before the end of the fiscal year. If that happens, lawyers have said they may not get paid for the constitutionally required work they've already done until the new fiscal year.
While the Legislature's budget-writing committee rejected the unanimous recommendation of the judiciary committee to fund the $1.8 million, legislators did vote to include language giving the governor extra emergency powers to fill the gap. That language gives lawyers facing 10 weeks without pay a second line of hope.
Michael Cianchette, chief counsel for Gov. Paul LePage's office, drafted the language that allows the governor to redistribute up to $2 million for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services if money becomes available at any time before the end of the fiscal year.
"We hope to do something," Cianchette said. "We have to be able to act quickly when its clear the commission is running out of funds."
Unlike many other states, Maine doesn't have a public defender's office. The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services pays private attorneys to represent poor people in juvenile criminal cases, child custody cases, felony criminal cases and any other criminal case in which the sentence could include jail time.
Cianchette said the governor's office is hopeful that it will find the money, but that he has no clear answer for the private lawyers who are concerned they won't get paid.
"They are right to be concerned," Cianchette said. "Obviously, the governor and the administration are committed to paying the bills we've already racked up.
State Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewsiston, serves on the budget-writing committee -- the joint Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs -- and said everyone involved in the discussion understood that the work done by the private attorneys representing the poor is constitutionally required.
"This happened last year, and the governor's office funded the money. And from conversations with the governor's office, I'm confident that there are plans to find money to fund that," Carey said. "There is an unanimity between the Legislature and the governor's office that this is required by U.S. Constitution. This language is proof that we recognize the constitutional requirement to fund this."
One of the Indigent Legal Services commissioners, attorney Steven Carey, said he is "disappointed" that the Commission still isn't adequately funded but "thankful" that the governor's office and legislators were able to work with the commission to come up with a contingency plan.
"Through the Appropriations Committee work session, it was apparent that they weren't able to find the funding for us," said Steven Carey, who is not related to Rep. Michael Carey. "With this language included, both sides believe the governor will find the savings so we can pay our bills."
Staff Writer Scott Dolan can be contacted at: 791-6304 or at