A member of a Maine commission overseeing criminal defense for the poor has reportedly resigned just over a year after saying they should “suck it up” over falling morale.
Robert Cummins had been a member of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services (MCILS) since 2019. He wrote a resignation letter to the governor Janet Mills.
Every person accused of a crime and at risk of jail but unable to afford their own attorney is entitled to one provided at public expense. MCILS oversees that constitutional right.
In his letter, he said: “It has been argued that Maine does not give a damn that a poor person who is accused of a crime may not be adequately represented or have the full
benefit of due process.
”It has been argued that Maine does not give a damn that the lawyers who seek to zealously represent an indigent accused are not respected or adequately compensated for their efforts or for their personal and professional sacrifices.
“It has been argued that Maine simply does not give a damn that the criminal justice system in Maine is in crisis.”
In reference to a lawsuit from the ACLU of Maine, he added: “As a defendant in that lawsuit who is without the ability to bring it to a correct and proper resolution consistent with the mandates of the Constitution, I face a conflict that can only be resolved by leaving the Commission and by standing by my oath and by the side of the volunteer lawyers who unselfishly seek due proceee for the indigent accused.”
In reporting on his resignation he said that defense attorneys who do court appointed work were “wonderful.”
However, in February last year, at an MCILS meeting, his tone was somewhat different after being told about plummeting morale by defense attorneys facing constant criticism following a report by the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center.
At the meeting, Mr. Cummins said: “I have no question in my mind that some of the faults that have been identified by the Sixth Amendment [Center] exist.
”I say suck it up. If you think you’re being unduly criticized when you know the criticism is misplaced, you know, just.. just suck it up. And I’m a little frustrated seeing this for two years not working.
”This system isn’t designed to provide employment for lawyers at the expense of quality of representation of indigents.
”I’m new to Maine. When I came here and found out the way this system worked and before I was appointed to this commission quite frankly I thought it was crazy. I’ve worked in a public defender system I’ve worked with volunteer lawyers in the bar on all kinds of cases. I’ve seen post conviction reviews that indicated most public defenders and court-appointed counsel screw up.
”This system isn’t working. Let’s get it working and put aside our personal feelings or feeling offended or dejected.”
Mr Cummins had been an advocate for a public defender organization in Maine. The state assigns all indigent defendants to a private attorney, rather than salaried staff working for a state entity.
Separately, the chairman of the Commission, Josh Tardy, wrote to the governor on Friday asking that MCILS be properly funded to cope with a halving of the number of rostered attorneys, while felonies have risen 82% since the pandemic, and misdemeanors have risen 63%.
In his letter, Mr. Tardy said “We ask that you immediately convene a dialogue with us and immediately support and make the changes necessary to ensure the people of the State of Maine have access to the counsel they are guaranteed. We recognize that a properly provisioned indigent defense system is not inexpensive. It is also not optional.”