Seth Levy outside the Cumberland County Courthouse on Monday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Longtime indigent defense attorney Seth Levy said he resigned weeks after becoming the state’s first lead public defender because he wasn’t given the authority he was promised.

“As soon as the job started, it was a totally different job,” Levy said. “I was told that I was not to be engaged in policy discussions, I wasn’t allowed to meet with people without permission. … Everything was managed and controlled. I was given directives. It was vastly different than what I understood the job was going to be.”

Levy resigned on Jan. 20, one month after accepting the job serving at the helm of Maine’s Rural Defender Unit of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. He was hired with a $104,000 salary.

In an interview Saturday, three days after his resignation became public, Levy said he quickly realized that his vision for the job did not line up with that of Executive Director Justin Andrus. But said he’s still optimistic the unit will succeed.

Levy said he thought he would be building something.

During interviews for the job, Levy said, Andrus told him “whoever’s going to take this job is going to be able to build it and direct it.”


Instead, he was hired to supervise and hand down directives.

Andrus declined Monday to comment on Levy’s reason for resigning.

“From a client perspective there has been no effective change in representation that they are receiving,” Andrus said. “Our No. 1 priority is ensuring that quality client care continues.”

Maine lawmakers made history last spring when they authorized the commission to hire the state’s first public defenders. Until now, Maine relied on lists of private attorneys trained and overseen by Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. That list continues to hit new lows, dropping from 400 attorneys willing to accept assignments in 2020 to 147 this month.

In late November and December, the commission hired five public defense attorneys – two at $67,000 a year, two at $94,000 a year and one lead district defender to oversee them.

Levy said he was impressed that the commission had been able to secure money for the five positions.



Levy said he has taken on cases through the commission for about 20 years and spent half that time working in a program that offers resources, rather than prison time, to criminal defendants with mental health disorders.

“The thing about a defense attorney is you can do that work, one client at a time, but you don’t really have a systemic impact,” Levy said.

Levy, who ran unsuccessfully for Cumberland County district attorney in 2018 on a criminal justice reform campaign, said he saw the new public defender position as a way to have a statewide impact.

“I saw this as an opportunity to not only stabilize the system, in terms of getting representation to indigent clients, but also building programs,” he said.

Levy said he was open about that during the interview process, sharing a 100-day plan with Andrus outlining his hopes to establish internal protocols, staff training and client outreach. Levy said Andrus was receptive and told him he would be “hands-off.”


Levy said he ultimately decided the job would be better suited for “someone else in a different station of life,” but he still believes the rural defender unit will succeed.

“Honestly, there wasn’t anything personal about that, I was just like ‘that’s not the job that I was expecting to do, it’s not what I wanted to do, I didn’t think I was going to be successful in that situation,” Levy said.


On Wednesday, commission members voted unanimously to allow Andrus to take over the job for no more than six months while commission staff sort through more candidates.

Andrus said Monday that he hopes they’ll hire the right candidate “in a much shorter time frame.”

He said the commission is “looking for someone who’s enthusiastic about indigent defense and being part of development for a brand new program.”


Levy said the commission should be more clear about what that job is.

“Is it going to be a lead public defender who’s going to be able to build this? Or is it going to be more a strictly supervisory position of staff?” Levy said.

Levy has no plans to step away from indigent defense and is still representing clients through commission. He said that he told Andrus he would still be available to aid in any transition.

Levy sees the merits of having a public defender’s office and he’s excited to see proposals from the governor’s office to expand those efforts with an additional 10 attorneys.

He said a hybrid system of public and private defense attorneys would ensure quality legal representation.

“Even though I’m really sad that I’m not doing the job, I’m optimistic,” Levy said. “I think there’s a way to do this and the reason I think that is because having done this for 20 years, I have total confidence in the good intentions and abilities of all the different players in this work.”

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