PORTLAND – One month after taking over the $10 million annual budget that pays for court-appointed lawyers across the state, the newly created Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services is getting mixed reviews from leading defense attorneys.

On the plus side, vouchers are being processed and lawyers are being paid — in some instances, faster than ever before — for their work on behalf of thousands of poor people, juvenile defendants and the seriously mentally ill.

And a new computer system designed to track cases and reimburse lawyers is up and running despite some technical glitches and a flurry of complaints by lawyers that it’s too time-consuming.

“We weren’t polished on Day One, but we were functional on Day One,” said John Pelletier, executive director of the commission, which inherited the responsibility for overseeing indigent defense from Maine’s judicial branch on July 1.

But larger concerns remain about the commission’s ability to handle the task assigned to it by the Legislature, say leaders of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Chief among the concerns is that the commission has not yet developed eligibility requirements and performance standards for lawyers assigned to certain kinds of serious cases, such as homicides or sex crimes. Once in place, the standards will be used to make sure the lawyers are qualified to handle such cases.

As it stands today, an indigent person charged with murder in Cumberland County will be assigned a lawyer from a roster of 50 who have asked to be on the list. Some of those lawyers have handled several murder cases, while others have never represented a client in a major felony, said Sarah Churchill, president-elect of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“People should not have to rely on the luck of the draw for the quality of the lawyer they get,” Churchill said.

She and other defense lawyers had hoped standards would have been in place by this summer. Until that happens, questions will linger about the quality of representation and the fairness of appointments, Churchill said.

David Mitchell, another leader in the defense lawyers association, expressed that concern in a letter to the commission in mid-July.

“The commission made clear on more than one occasion that it would take more than basic brain function and a license to practice law in the State of Maine in order to represent indigent people in certain types of criminal cases,” Mitchell wrote. “As far as I can tell, the only additional training and qualification the Commission is requiring for an attorney to be on certain panels is a mere request.”

Pelletier, the commission’s executive director, and Ron Schneider, a lawyer with Bernstein Shur who serves as the chairman of the commission, say the development of standards and specialized rosters for the most serious cases is a priority, but it will take time to achieve.

“I am aware that the concern is out there,” Pelletier said. “That is going to be a principal focus of our next year. When we have performance standards, we will have objective criteria to measure people.”

Schneider said even though the standards are still in the works, he believes qualified lawyers are being appointed from the rosters, and judges continue to have discretion on which lawyers to assign.

“We told the court that within the rosters, if you want to pick a particular lawyer for a particular case, you can do that,” Schneider said. “The judges know the lawyers, and I don’t think it makes any sense to ignore that reality.”

Schneider concedes that the commission’s adoption of eligibility requirements and professional standards — something he expects to happen within the next six months — will provide greater accountability and will raise the bar for the quality of representation for poor defendants in Maine.

“The judicial branch system, or lack of a system, existed for 40 years. We got an executive director in January and took over in July,” Schneider said. “There was no way we were going to have a perfect system in place on July 1.”

Rob Ruffner, a criminal defense lawyer from Portland who has played a key role in the development of the commission, said it’s poor policy to rely on the discretion of judges. They do not have the time or the information to decide which lawyers are most qualified for individual cases, he said.

“It is not a solution, and it is not even a Band-Aid,” Ruffner said. “The standards need to be in place. They are going to be significant, and in order to comply with the statute, they have to be tough standards.”

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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