Maine saw a court system in crisis in 2022.

Record-low participation by lawyers in the state’s public defense system, a class action lawsuit, and a public reckoning about county jails recording confidential attorney-client phone calls were among the top concerns. State lawmakers have attempted to address some of the systemic problems but more remains to be done.

Valerie Stanfill, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, declared in November that the courts were failing.

“We are failing in this state in our justice systems – criminal and civil, to be honest,” Stanfill said.

A tremendous backlog of open cases, much of it stemming from the pandemic, continues to gum up the criminal courts.

Maine also saw record-low numbers of lawyers available in 2022 to accept new court-appointed cases through the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, the state’s alternative to the public defender systems used in other states. An analysis in August revealed that 33 lawyers contracted with MCILS were managing nearly half of all open indigent cases statewide, the Maine Monitor reported.


Shortages of available defense lawyers for the indigent have persisted, with 148 lawyers accepting court-appointed cases, including just 65 lawyers accepting new adult criminal clients as of Dec. 28, according to the legal services commission. Court clerks in nearly half of Maine counties were unable to find a qualified attorney to work on a case during October, and several county courts continued to have problems finding available lawyers to take cases through the end of the year, emails show.

Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, recently told Maine Public that private law firms need to play a bigger role in addressing the crisis.

“I want to encourage every law firm in the state of Maine to help us out here, get us over the hump. And I want to encourage law firms to designate lawyers in their firm to do work for indigent defendants. Honestly, it not only provides a social service and a constitutional service – a public service – it also gets people in the courtroom. And it provides an experience that you’re not going to get otherwise to become a good lawyer,” Mills said.

Experienced criminal defense lawyers have publicly pushed back, saying these cases require specialized skills.

Legislative leadership and Mills also didn’t respond to a request in September to host a special session of the state Legislature to address the problem. MCILS commissioners had proposed dedicating $13.3 million in emergency funding to increase pay for court-appointed defense lawyers from $80 to $150 an hour to attract more lawyers to accept cases. No special session was held.

The Attorney General’s Office went to court this year to defend Maine’s unique model of public defense against a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Maine. The civil rights organization is representing several low-income defendants who alleged they were receiving ineffective legal help because the state failed to create a system that adequately trains, oversees, and pays lawyers. The litigation is ongoing.


A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers passed last-minute funding earlier in the year to hire the state’s first public defenders. The five public defenders will be part of a roaming Rural Defender Unit that will work directly on cases in counties where there are not enough lawyers. Lawyers have been hired for all five positions and have begun working, said Justin Andrus, MCILS executive director.

Prosecutors, law enforcement, and lawmakers proposed multiple reforms after a yearlong investigation by the Monitor revealed county jails had routinely and repeatedly recorded confidential phone calls between jailed defendants and their attorneys, and sometimes shared those recordings with police and prosecutors before trial.

Maine State Police detectives received and listened to parts of confidential phone calls between three jailed murder suspects and their lawyers before their cases went to trial or were settled this year. The Aroostook County Jail also was found to have recorded 304 phone calls between one lawyer and 49 of his jailed clients from 2019 to 2020 – dozens of which were listened to, the Monitor reported. Sheriff Shawn Gillen said access to the jail’s telephone recordings is now limited.

A legislative study group formed in the wake of the Monitor’s reporting recommended policy changes across state government to reduce the likelihood of recording or releasing recordings of private calls. But the group fell short of defining how to enforce the proposed changes or penalize jails that record and share confidential calls in the future.

State lawmakers are expected to consider several of the group’s recommendations in early 2023.

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter right here. 

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