ACLU of Maine reaches settlement in public defender suit

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has reached a settlement over the failure of the state’s public defender system with a state agency’s commitment to press for more funding and additional public defender offices, in addition to charting a path forward.

The settlement of the lawsuit builds on previous successes with the opening of the first public defender office, improved hourly wages for private attorneys serving indigent clients and the hiring of a staffer to oversee attorney training and supervision.

“There is no quick fix or single solution to the current and future challenges to Maine’s indigent criminal defense system. The proposed settlement provides meaningful short and long-term reforms,” the document said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has reached a settlement in a lawsuit over the state’s public defender system.

The settlement agreement must be approved by a judge.

Samuel Crankshaw, spokesperson for the ACLU of Maine, said he couldn’t comment on the settlement because it hasn’t been approved by a judge. But he said Wednesday the ACLU is happy to play a role in changing the current system that has denied “countless” low-income Mainers their Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel.

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“We are proud to advance this issue in Maine because effective legal representation is not a luxury for the rich — it’s a right guaranteed to us all,” he said.

Neither the state attorney general’s office nor the director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services had comment Wednesday on the settlement, dated Aug. 21. The lawsuit was filed in March 2022.

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A judge previously granted class status to the lawsuit against the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services that cited a failure to train, supervise and adequately fund a system to ensure the constitutional right to effective counsel for Mainers.

Before the hiring of five public defenders last year and an additional 10 public defenders included in this year’s state budget, Maine was the only state without a public defender’s office for people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

The state had relied solely on private attorneys who were reimbursed by the state to handle such cases, and the number of lawyers willing to take court-appointed cases has been declining in recent years, creating a backlog.

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All states are required to provide an attorney to criminal defendants who are unable to afford their own lawyer. A scathing report in 2019 outlined significant shortcomings in Maine’s system, including lax oversight of the billing practices by the private attorneys.

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