Maine's most senior judge painted a bleak picture of an overwhelmed court system in a "crisis," with courts "barely" maintaining a "frightening" number of criminal cases, while the the number of attorneys representing poor defendants has fallen "dramatically."
She also described "chronic" under funding of the system and asked for more attorneys in Maine to help a "dire" situation in the short term.
The Chief Justice of Maine's Supreme Judicial Court, Valerie Stanfill, was talking to around a hundred lawyers by Zoom in an event organized by the Maine State Bar Association after asking the organization to host it with Justin Andrus, the executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services (MCILS). MCILS oversees court-appointed attorneys who take criminal defense cases for people unable to afford a private lawyer, as protected under the United States and Maine constitutions.
Under Maine's constitution, people are also entitled to an attorney for protective custody cases, including legal action to deprive parents of their parental rights and take children out of their care.
Chief Justice Stanfill said about her conversations to legislators: "I have not been soft pedaling any messages. We are failing. We are failing in this state in our justice systems, criminal and civil, to be honest."
At the beginning of the meeting, she said: "If you haven’t read the news in the last two months, in case you didn’t know, we are having a bit of a crisis with appointed counsel in this state. We don’t have enough lawyers who are willing to take these cases and we, at the same time, experiencing a crisis in our court system with a backlog, particularly for criminal cases, that is just overwhelming at this point. Of course, the two are related and interrelated."
She said court clerks are spending an "inordinate" amount of time finding attorneys to match with defendants who need one. Mr. Andrus also characterized the situation as a "crisis."
The courts are facing two problems - an increase in the number of new cases, and a backlog in cases that were delayed by the pandemic. She described the numbers as "frightening" and the case load for courts "horrible."
Added to the problem is that the number of lawyers taking cases has, as she described it, fallen "drastically." Immediately before the pandemic the number was at 410. It is now 160 - made worse because there is an even more acute shortage on so-called specialized rosters like domestic violence, serious violent felonies, OUI cases, and others.
Justin Andrus, executive director of MCILS, described the snowball effect on "overwhelmed" attorneys: “As the numbers decline, that is just exacerbated because each person who has capacity fills up that much faster.
“We had an attorney take himself off the list to get his caseload down a bit, which we appreciate, went back on because he felt like he had some capacity – he got 47 cases in a week and then immediately had to take himself back off.”
Mr. Andrus said, based on current numbers and research, there needs to be at least 280 additional attorneys to properly deal with the current case load.
Chief Justice Stanfill said: “Lawyers have so many cases that they are just not available or taking themselves off the roster.”
Courts have about sixty per cent MORE cases than before the pandemic started, but on barely stagnant budgets and available resources. In addition, the number of new cases was about 26,500 before the pandemic and this year is predicted to be 33,000.
Mr. Andrus has advocated for another increase in attorney pay and more resources from the legislature and the executive to encourage more attorneys to do more of the work, and has set up a training program for experienced non-criminal defense attorneys to step in and help with a truncated training to enable those inexperienced in criminal cases to be rostered.
Chief Justice Stanfill said using attorneys inexperienced in criminal law was a way to get court experience, and she had a criminal caseload when she was in private practice. "One of the things we are hoping to do is entice some lawyers who might want courtroom experience into considering taking on a little bit of this.”
Mr Andrus said many attorneys have felt that the pay is not a reasonable proposition to do the work, which is part of the problem. "We need help," he said. Mr. Andrus also said there was "hope" about more resources becoming available based on his discussions behind the scenes.
The courts have also been attempting to get funding for new criminal law magistrates to do early stage hearings - initial appearances, bail, arraignments, to free up judge time to do more substantive work. Much of the current caseload is being done remotely, which frees up criminal defense attorneys from wasting time driving between different courts. While recognizing that this was helping Chief Justice Stanfill said continuing that was not guaranteed.
Chief Justice Stanfill said appealing for more attorneys to step in was "not a solution" but an "assist." "We are just a little desperate to get help wherever we can get it."
"This is a state that has chronically underfunded these systems." Later she said: "The true cost of representation in this state has never been fully realized ... The conversations I have with legislators - I think people are beginning to understand how dire some things are."