Maine is still without a functioning system of public defenders.

Until that system is firmly in place, the constitutional rights of defendants are being repeatedly violated, and all of us are at risk of the consequences.

It is the state’s responsibility to put this prolonged and unacceptable failure to rights.

The latest instance of squabbling and finger-pointing over what can happen as a result of the unacceptable absence of – even the bare minimum of – legal representation for indigent defendants played out in the aftermath of a tragic standoff with police in Auburn earlier this month.

On June 15, a man deliberately set fire to two homes and exchanged gunfire with police before being shot himself, “by a Maine State Police tactical unit or by a self-inflicted gunshot,” according to reports. A second man was killed in one of the fires.

The suspect had been released on a lowered bail while waiting in vain for a court-appointed attorney to represent him on domestic violence assault charges.


In an eyebrow-raising written statement to the Sun Journal, Gov. Janet Mills criticized the judge’s decision to release the defendant. Police and state trooper unions also saw fit to blame the judge in needlessly strong and personalized terms, as did the district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties.

We must not let these high-profile salvos of an unbecoming “blame game” – taking place against the backdrop of a community’s torment and grief – pull our attention away from the hard truth of the matter.

State government neglect and indifference has brought us to this point, where Mainers who have no chance at due process fall between the cracks and judges are forced to do their jobs under shamefully challenging circumstances. As it stands, the balancing act that is demanded – and, apparently, expected – of the judiciary is entirely unreasonable.

It falls to Gov. Mills and state leadership to change that.

In March, this editorial board chose to welcome (with what now seems like unwarranted optimism) the formal establishment of the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services and the dissolution of the body that was previously in its place. We noted that, with new investment and planning, the Mills administration appeared to be beginning to commit the necessary resources to the crisis.

Until we see the number of unrepresented indigent accused dropping, however – more than 800 individuals are without representation in Maine – it’s just that: an appearance.


Over the widespread noise to do with the specifics of the Auburn case, Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill stepped up and offered what we regard as a clarion call.

“The lack of appointed counsel in this state is a constitutional crisis,” Stanfill said in a statement. “Our system of justice depends on all the parts of the system being adequately resourced so that the parts can work together toward a just end for everyone. If one or more of the parts is inadequately funded, or missing altogether, the system will break down.”

Maine’s system has broken down.

It shouldn’t take a debate over a harrowing tragedy to shunt that back into the public consciousness. It shouldn’t take any more pressure to drive appreciable change.

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