February 2, 2013

Maine's court-appointed lawyers face fiscal crunch

The state's budget to pay for their constitutionally mandated work will run out in mid-April, long before the fiscal year ends.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - Attorney Amy Fairfield has devoted most of her professional career to providing legal defense for people who have been charged with a crime and are too poor to hire a lawyer on their own.

click image to enlarge

Robert Ruffner, director of the Maine Indigent Defense Center, says his job is “to be the squeaky wheel to point out that we’re not quite cutting it.”

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Attorney Clifford Strike’s law firm, which represents many indigent clients, has cut its staff, a direct result of last year’s state budget crisis.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Unlike many other states, Maine doesn't have a public defender's office. Instead, it hires private attorneys like Fairfield -- who pay all their own expenses, office costs and support staff salaries -- to take on court-appointed work, billing the state at a rate of $50 per hour, far less than the rates attorneys in private practice usually bill.

But Fairfield and other attorneys who do the same work are facing a fiscal crisis. The state's budget to pay those lawyers for their constitutionally required work will be wiped out by mid-April, long before the fiscal year ends on June 30, leaving the lawyers to do the state's work unpaid.

Going 2½ to 3 months without income to pay her staff and bills would be "catastrophic," Fairfield said. Her firm, Fairfield & Associates, has nine attorneys, two law offices, in Portland and Lyman, and a total of 13 employees including support staff.

"Almost all of our practice is defense of indigent legal defendants. It's something we love, we're good at it and we don't want to give it up," she said. "Everything associated with running an office comes out of that money."

The House and Senate joint Committee on Judiciary last month unanimously recommended funding the estimated $1.8 million shortfall to pay for the court-appointed work, and the joint Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs is slated to decide this week whether to fund it in a supplemental budget through the end of the fiscal year.

The co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, said the committee wouldn't decide for sure until later this week.

"I can't say where we are at this point," Hill said. "Maybe we can find a smaller number."

The same situation came up last year when the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which runs the state program for legal defense of the poor, was faced with a budget shortfall of about $1.6 million.

In fiscal year 2012, the commission had a budget of $9.8 million, not enough to meet its final expenses of nearly $11.5 million. The Legislature partially funded the shortfall with a $750,000 supplemental budget, leaving the governor to use his emergency powers to allocate the remainder.

The situation has led to some attorneys getting out of the program altogether.

In the budget crisis last spring, attorney Clifford Strike's firm, Strike, Goodwin, & O'Brien, decided it couldn't survive another season without getting paid.

"A year ago when we went through this, I had six attorneys in the firm and a total of 12 people. And now there are three of us," Strike said.

Strike said he called a meeting last spring of the entire staff and told them they would have to either take substantial pay cuts or go their separate ways. Many of the firm's top lawyers left, he said.

Strike said the $50-per-hour rate, which was set in 1999, is not enough to fund a small law firm that handles high-profile cases.

"We have to pay our own health insurance, our own malpractice insurance, our own rent, our own workman's compensation, etc., etc. And we have to pay for our own paper clips, all at a rate that was set 14 years ago," Strike said. "When you're paying attorneys so little, you are encouraging ineffective assistance of counsel."

Strike declined to disclose exact financial numbers for his firm, but said the money the firm made last year from court-appointed work was about $5,000 a month less than it cost to keep the office running after paying salaries, insurance, rent and other bills.

(Continued on page 2)

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