Maine governor calls for public defenders on state payroll

BRUNSWICK, Me. (Reuters) - Governor Paul LePage this week proposed overhauling Maine’s system for providing the poor with legal representation, a move that would bring the only U.S. state without government-employed public defenders in line with the rest of the country.

LePage, a Republican, on Tuesday introduced legislation that would revamp the existing system, which relies on independent lawyers who work on individual contracts.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants all citizens accused of a crime the right to legal counsel, but it does not require attorneys be public servants.

Maine has traditionally assigned private practice attorneys on a case-by-case basis to defend those unable to afford a lawyer and paid for their services on an hourly basis with taxpayer funds.

Under the proposal, a public defender’s office would use a mix of state-funded staff attorneys and contracted, private practice lawyers, all overseen by a chief public defender.

Proponents of the bill have said it would make costs more predictable and ensure a consistent standard of legal representation for the poor. In Maine, the governor can introduce a bill, and LePage’s bill has eight sponsors in the legislature.

Maine currently pays private practice attorneys a flat fee of $55 per hour, much less than many of the state’s private firms charge even for paralegal fees, according to John Pelletier, director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, the state office that manages the current system.

Pelletier said the current approach, despite low rates and an unconventional approach, has attracted experienced attorneys and ensures strong, cost-efficient representation.

“The current system is able to take advantage of very serious lawyers, which, in most public defense systems, would have moved on and would no longer provide representation to poor people charged with crimes,” he said.

But Pelletier acknowledged oversight and quality control have become difficult as case loads and crimes have grown more technical.

National advocates for public defense said the Maine proposal has merit, but should be carefully scrutinized.

“The delivery model is less important than whether it meets national standards of justice,” said David Carroll, director of the Sixth Amendment Center, a Boston-based non-profit group that advocates for strong defense attorneys for poor defendants. “Changing models won’t necessarily make the system better, but it might.”