The top official at Maine’s public defense agency has announced he will resign after two years of working to reform a state agency once embroiled in controversy.
Justin Andrus, 48, will leave his role as executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, no later than June 30, he announced this week. The commission and its parallel state agency are responsible for overseeing lawyers who provide legal service to adults and children charged with crimes who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys. The state is required under the Constitution to pay for this service.
Andrus is the second leader to announce their departure from MCILS this year. Nathaniel Seth Levy resigned January 19 to return to private practice after a brief stint running Maine’s first public defender office at MCILS. Andrus is currently overseeing the public defender office.
“It’s a good time for a transition to a permanent, long-term executive director,” Andrus said. “We have made a radical transformation and I’m very proud of that transformation.”
Andrus joined MCILS in January 2021 as the interim executive director — a job that was supposed to last for between 90 to 120 days. His predecessor, John Pelletier, had led the agency since it opened in 2010 and resigned in 2020 following a government investigation that revealed there was little oversight of the agency’s finances and news reports by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica that revealed Pelletier repeatedly contracted with lawyers who had been disciplined for professional misconduct or had criminal convictions of their own to defend the states poor in court.
Andrus worked to correct financial oversight and enforce rules early in his tenure at MCILS. Lawyers who are appointed to represent parents in child protection cases were required to apply and have their qualification evaluated by MCILS for the first time. Deadlines for attorneys to submit invoices to be paid for work on cases were also enforced.
The Maine Monitor and ProPublica published an investigation in February 2021 that detailed how at least 2,000 case assignments were made in five years to lawyers who didn’t meet MCILS’s qualifications or hadn’t applied to receive those case types. Andrus ordered some lawyers who were not eligible to work on serious criminal cases to withdraw.
“The hardest part of the problem was reeducating hundreds of people across a very diverse set of constituencies about what a public defense organization needs to be,” Andrus said. “I came into MCILS and it was an organization that processed vouchers (invoices) and did its best to line up qualified counsel of different types with cases of different types. Today we are, at least in embryonic form, what a public defense agency needs to be.”
A person with different skills is needed now to take MCILS through its next long period, Andrus said.
MCILS is working on attorney training, recruitment, professional development and beginning to try to do better oversight of the private lawyers it contracts with, Andrus said. In December 2022, the agency also hired the state’s first five public defenders.
Josh Tardy, chairman of the commission that oversees MCILS, said Andrus is leaving MCILS in a better place than he joined it in and has been an asset to the agency.
The plan is to post the job and open the role to applicants, Tardy said. The commission will look for a person with high-level executive functioning and an understanding of criminal defense, different perspectives and the political process, Tardy said on Wednesday.
Andrus leaves behind unfinished work. Appointed commissioners who oversee MCILS are in the process of deciding whether to set caseload standards for attorneys that were drafted under Andrus’ leadership.
His proposals for an auditing program that would allow MCILS employees to review more attorney billing records and a supervision program with the aim to improve indigent defense services statewide are also incomplete.
Andrus, MCILS and its commissioners were named in a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Maine in March 2022 for their failure to create an effective public defense system. The attorney general’s office is representing MCILS in the suit and denied Andrus’ request for his own legal counsel. The litigation is ongoing.
During 2021 and 2022, Andrus received a mix bag of results at the state house. Often his proposals to hire more public defenders and expand funding for court-appointed counsel gained support in committee but received little to no support in the final versions of the budget.
MCILS saw itself be stretched to the limit in 2022 when a record-low number of lawyers were accepting new cases, The Monitor reported. The state court’s inability to clear a backlog of criminal cases caused the state’s chief justice to say in November, “We are failing.”
This year, though, lawmakers and Gov. Janet Mills began increasing the funding.
On Tuesday, Mills signed a supplemental state budget that included approval for MCILS to increase wages from $80 to $150 an hour for contracted court-appointed lawyers starting on March 1. Defense lawyers have begun to return to MCILS in response to the news, Andrus said.
“I was thrilled today to see on the governor’s website on the release about the supplemental budget that the governor office held up additional support to MCILS as one of the elements of the supplemental budget it wanted to draw attention to. I see that as really positive,” Andrus said.
Andrus, who lives in Maine’s mid-coast region, said he is likely going to return to private practice and said he hopes work with indigent defendants will be a part of it.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated Wednesday afternoon with comments from Josh Tardy, chairman of the commission that oversees MCILS.
Samantha Hogan covers government accountability and the criminal justice system for The Maine Monitor. Reach her by email: email@example.com.