Maine’s public defense agency for the poor and the ACLU are nearing a settlement on a plan to improve legal representation for criminal defendants, lawyers for both sides told the court Friday, though state budget decisions during the next few months may change the final outcome.
Carol Garvan, legal director of the ACLU of Maine, and a lawyer for the state both said they are making progress on a multi-year agreement. Details of the proposed settlement are confidential.
“We are well into the details of a settlement,” Assistant Attorney General Sean Magenis told the court Friday.
Still unknown are budget and statutory changes that state lawmakers could pass this year that may affect the settlement. Decisions such as to hire public defenders or adjust the mission of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services will require lawmakers’ approval and cannot be made by the commission on its own.
In a class action lawsuit filed last year, the ACLU of Maine alleged the state had failed to create an effective public defense system in violation of criminal defendants’ constitutional rights. At the time, Maine employed no public defenders and instead contracted with private lawyers to defend people charged with crimes who could not afford to hire their own attorney, at the state’s expense. Maine is required to provide lawyers to defendants who cannot afford to hire their own under the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
MCILS Executive Director Justin Andrus and six appointed commissioners are the named defendants of the lawsuit, and they are being represented by the attorney general’s office. Magenis said he “shares optimism” with the ACLU that a settlement can be reached and that a multi-year stay of the litigation could be ordered by the court — avoiding a trial.
Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy, who is presiding over the case, said the Legislature will play a big role in the settlement by potentially passing a budget and statutes that will affect MCILS operations.
Since the suit was filed, the state has started a pilot project that hired five public defenders. However, this year, Democrats passed a partisan baseline budget of $9.8 billion on March 30 that didn’t include funding for new initiatives. Among the items left out were proposals to hire additional public defenders. Lawmakers are expected to negotiate a second part to the state budget before adjourning in June.
Murphy made note that only part of MCILS’s budget was so far funded and that “strange things” happen on the legislative appropriations table, which will ultimately determine what is in the final state budget.
She agreed to temporarily delay the case until mid-June to see what lawmakers do. The next court appearance is scheduled for June 23.
Samantha Hogan reports on Maine’s criminal justice system. Reach her with story ideas by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.