Criminal Justice

Lawyers with criminal backgrounds and disciplinary records represent poor defendants in Maine

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The Maine agency responsible for hiring lawyers for poor defendants has repeatedly hired lawyers and staff members with criminal backgrounds and disciplinary issues, according to an investigative report.

Maine is the only state without a public defender system, according to the story by ProPublica and the Maine Monitor. Instead, the state relies on an understaffed and underfunded agency, the Commission on Indigent Legal Services, to hire private criminal defense lawyers for the poor.

Commission lawyers make up about 15% of practicing lawyers in Maine, but they account for 26% of the lawyers who have been disciplined for ethical misconduct in the past decade, the story reports.

Only five lawyers have been removed from the commission’s roster in the last decade, even as dozens were sanctioned by ethics regulators.

The ethical cases had alleged misconduct ranging from missed deadlines to helping clients commit crimes.

“It does not take much to be an attorney for the poor in Maine,” the article reports. “Commission attorneys must be licensed by the state and complete a one-day training course to accept most case types. Anyone having practiced for three years can be exempted from the training. Eight hours of continuing legal education a year is all it takes to remain eligible.”

One lawyer hired by the commission had degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School, along with a criminal record. He pleaded guilty in January 2015 to possession of child pornography. He decided to switch careers from labor and employment law to criminal defense while in jail and got hired to represent poor defendants after his 2016 release.

Another lawyer began to work for the commission in 2010 after he was accused of exposing himself to two people—a former client and the wife of a former client. The lawyer received a reprimand in 2009 and was found guilty of indecent conduct for one of the alleged incidents that same year. In 2011, he was approved to work on sex offense cases.

Another lawyer was hired after four drunken driving arrests and a one-year suspension based on alcoholism and mental health issues that affected her ability to practice law.

Proposed reforms would ban the hiring of lawyers convicted of serious felonies, unless a waiver is issued. The hiring of lawyers with drug or alcohol convictions would also be restricted.

“Many of the attorneys on the roster are some of the best attorneys in Maine,” said commission chairman Josh Tardy, a lobbyist and attorney, in an interview with ProPublica. “Overall, there could be improvements made.”

Tardy was appointed chairman in 2019.

The second story in the investigative series is here.

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