Governor prepares to fill vacancies on public defense oversight board

Gov. Janet Mills intends to recommend people to fill three vacancies and two expired terms on the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services as early as next month.
Sarah Churchill, on left, raises her right hand as she faces Governor Janet Mills, who is raising her right hand and reading from a piece of paper, during a swearing in ceremony in the governor's office.
Sarah Churchill, who stepped down from the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services to become a District Court judge, gets sworn into the new role by Gov. Janet Mills on Friday. Churchill's spot on the board that oversees Maine's public defense agency is one of five the governor must fill. Photo courtesy Lindsay Crete.

Gov. Janet Mills intends to fill multiple vacancies on the state commission that oversees the public defense system as early as next month.

Mills has the authority to appoint nine people to a board that oversees the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, which is responsible for monitoring private defense attorneys who represent people who are charged with crimes and cannot afford to hire their own lawyer. There are three vacancies on the commission and two members’ terms have expired but they continue to serve.

“The governor believes that it is important that the commission operate with a full contingent of experienced, highly qualified individuals who can contribute to solving the serious issues that the commission is facing,” said Lindsay Crete, press secretary for the Mills administration.

Sarah Churchill, a criminal and civil defense attorney from Windham, was the first to depart the commission in late January. Churchill was nominated by Mills to serve as a District Court judge. 

Churchill volunteered to defend Maine’s poor against criminal charges early in her career. In 2019, she accepted a role on the commission to try to reform MCILS and improve representation for the poor.

“Fun wouldn’t be the right word, but it has been an honor to serve and help get this system (that) I have been a part of for a very long time headed on a much better track,” Churchill said at her final meeting on Jan. 27.

The Judiciary Committee unanimously supported her nomination earlier this month, and the Senate approved her appointment Thursday. Mills is seeking recommendations from Acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to fill the vacancy.

Bob LeBrasseur, the commission’s sole practicing attorney working on the behalf of indigent defendants, also left his position overseeing the state’s public defense agency. 

LeBrasseur ran a law firm in Portland focused on criminal defense and was nominated by the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, or MACDL, to be appointed by the governor to the commission in 2019. A second commission seat for a practicing court-appointed lawyer was never filled by Mills. Both non-voting positions are now vacant.

LeBrasseur’s new job as a hearings examiner with the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles disqualifies him from staying on the commission in his current role.

“Ultimately, it is up to Gov. Mills and the legislature on how fast the vacancy will be filled,” LeBrasseur wrote in an email to The Maine Monitor.

Mills received lists of potential appointees from MACDL on Dec. 18, and the Maine State Bar Association for the other vacant seat on Dec. 31, Crete said. Mills is reviewing the submitted names and intends to submit her recommended appointees to the Senate for its next round of confirmations that may occur in March.

Mills is also soliciting recommendations from the Speaker of the House and the Senate President to fill two commissioner terms that have expired. The existing members will stay in those seats until they are filled. 

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Samantha Hogan

Samantha Hogan focuses on government accountability projects for The Maine Monitor. She joined the newsroom as its first full-time reporter in 2019 with Report for America. Samantha was named the 2021 Maine’s Journalist of the Year by the Maine Press Association, and spent 2020 reporting on Maine’s court system through the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Her reporting on county jails recording and listening to attorney-client phone calls won the Silver Gavel award from the American Bar Association and was also a semi-finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2023. Samantha previously worked for The Frederick News-Post and interned twice for The Washington Post.
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