Maine is poised to hire its first public defenders after a legislative committee recommended Friday that about $1.24 million in surplus budget funds be spent on the effort.

Both chambers of the Legislature will vote on whether to fund the bill Monday. If they decide to do so, the governor would still have to sign the legislation before the money would be guaranteed. But the measure passed the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee on Friday with unanimous support.

“I’m very thankful for today’s vote in the appropriations committee. I think that this funding comes at a very critical time, and it will help us continue to try and fulfill the mission of providing legal services for the indigent,” said Josh Tardy, who chairs the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, overseeing the roughly 280 private attorneys who are assigned to represent indigent defendants in Maine courts.

Maine is the only state in the country that does not have any public defenders who are government employees. The bill approved by the committee would change that. It would allow the state to hire five attorneys who could be dispatched to underserved areas where private attorneys are not available. The bill also includes roughly $275,000 to reimburse the commission’s rostered private attorneys for online legal research tools, and it clarifies that the state can pay rostered attorneys to get training.

The appropriations committee agreed to support the legislation with some of the $12 million left unallocated in the $1.2 billion supplemental budget that Gov. Janet Mills signed Wednesday. That budget disappointed those pushing to improve legal services for indigent Mainers because it didn’t include funding for several bills that the Judiciary Committee had passed and prioritized earlier in the session.

“The Judiciary Committee is unanimously behind doing more for our public defense system,” Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said on Wednesday. “We differ somewhat on the things that we want to do, but doing nothing at all is – we’re vehemently opposed to doing nothing at all.”


Most notably, the legislation that stalled would have increased the rate private attorneys are paid to represent indigent clients, from $80 an hour to $100 an hour, and created a pilot public defender office in Kennebec County.


Unlike the Kennebec County proposal, the five-attorney office that the appropriations committee endorsed Friday would not include funding for support staff. Tardy said the commission would have to develop a plan for supporting the team after the funding is approved.

“We are going to try and do the best with the resources we’ve been allocated,” he said.

Attorney Rob Ruffner, who is one of the attorneys on the commission’s roster, said Friday that he hopes lawmakers don’t think the bill will fix everything that is wrong with Maine’s system. The number of attorneys on the state roster has been in decline, with some saying they have ceased taking cases because of low pay, low morale, and insufficient support and resources.

“I am worried that people will think this is what an actual public defender’s office could do, and it’s not that,” Ruffner said of the legislation to hire five roving public defenders.

Maine’s system for providing legal representation to low-income defendants has faced a great deal of criticism in recent years.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine announced it was suing the commission, arguing that the state has failed to fulfill its responsibilities under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which ensures legal representation to all criminal defendants.

In 2019, the nonpartisan Sixth Amendment Center, commissioned by the state to examine the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, found that the commission wasn’t adequately supervising the private attorneys working under it. In 2020, a state watchdog agency issued a similar report, noting a lack of structure and oversight.

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