FARMINGTON — Two defense lawyers in Franklin County have announced they will no longer be taking on state-appointed sexual-assault cases, in a protest against the state’s compensation rate for public defenders.

In a March 6 letter to the Franklin County Courts, Walter Hanstein of Farmington and David Sanders of Livermore Falls said the $50-per-hour rate for defending indigent clients accused of sexual assault is no longer sufficient to cover the expense of running a busy law office.

“We do this with a great deal of regret, because for more than 25 years, we have each regularly accepted such appointments — even though every time we handled one, it kept us from spending time on our far-better-paying retained legal matters,” Hanstein and Sanders wrote.

In an interview Friday, Hanstein said that by taking a stand against representing accused sex offenders — often the most difficult and time-consuming cases on the criminal docket — he and Sanders hope to prod the Legislature to act on increasing the rate of pay for court-appointed attorneys.

That rate has not changed since 1999,  but the cost of running a legal firm, including salaries for employees, insurance, rent and other costs, has gone up, Hanstein said.

“It’s not to pick on sex offenders,” he said. “It’s to try to create an issue that people have to address. Something needs to give in the system.”

He added, “As long as there are great lawyers around like David Sanders who are willing to do these cases at a loss, as his duty to the legal system, why should the Legislature pay a fair rate?”

Court-appointed cases are about 10 percent of his caseload, Hanstein estimated.

Criminal defense lawyers are appointed to defend clients who do not have the means to hire their own legal representation and are accused of a crime that could carry a jail sentence. 

Court appointments are made according to a roster maintained by the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, established in 2010. The commission determines, based on experience and qualifications, which lawyers can represent clients, based on the severity of the cases.

Most lawyers can represent indigent clients in OUI or drug cases, while far fewer are available to be appointed to serious crimes such as homicide and sexual assault. 

Of the 32 public defense lawyers listed in Franklin County, 11 are qualified to take on sexual-assault cases, according to commission records.

In Auburn Superior Court, 27 lawyers on the roster can defend sexual offenders, and 21 are on the roster in Oxford County Superior Court. Since the three courts are within the third judicial district, most of those lawyers are cross-referenced in all three.

Last year, an effort was made in the Legislature to increase the rate of compensation to $70 per hour. Although that rate was not approved, the Legislature did authorize a $5 per hour increase for public defenders, due to kick in in July.

That increase isn’t enough for Hanstein and Sanders to consider taking on sexual-assault cases, which are time-consuming, difficult and emotionally draining, Hanstein said. The two intend to continue representing indigent clients in other criminal matters, he said.

He admitted the idea of legal professionals asking for more money from the state probably won’t elicit a lot of sympathy from people whose hourly wage isn’t half what he gets paid. 

“The bottom line is, who wants to give ‘a bunch of rich lawyers’ more money when they’re already getting paid $50 an hour?” he said. 

The two attorneys’ frustration is shared by a large number of defense lawyers in the state, said Toby Dilworth, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. 

“(The association) is not encouraging its members to refuse to accept court-appointed cases, but it is a fact that a lot of lawyers are no longer representing clients at those rates,” Dilworth said Friday.

The association represents more than 250 criminal defense lawyers across Maine.

Specifically, news that private lawyers hired to represent Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention officials involved in a whistle-blower case are being paid $330 an hour, while their paralegals are being paid $125 an hour, has been galling to public defenders, Dilworth said.

“That’s the market rate in Portland,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s the wrong rate.” Dilworth practices with the Portland-based Drummond Woodsum law firm.

“It just shows you the disparity here and how below-market the rate is for people who are defending citizens who are facing serious charges,” he said.

Lawyers are generally free to decline appointments to represent clients and can ask to be removed from the roster or to not represent a criminal case in a specific category, said John Pelletier, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

The Maine Legislature recently approved an $860,000 supplemental budget for the commission, which was over-budget this year, he said.

Pelletier said he understood completely the lawyers’ frustration with the stagnant rate of pay.

“(Hanstein) doesn’t get to keep the $50 an hour,” Pelletier said. “He pays staff, he pays rent, he pays malpractice insurance, he pays health insurance for him and his family. All that stuff has gone up.”

Although the Legislature approved the $5 raise last year, Pelletier said he expected the commission to push for further increases.

“Our objective at this point — and my expectation — is that we are going to be able to find lawyers to represent people,” he said. The commission does not have the authority to grant rates to specific lawyers, or in specific cases, above the legally mandated $50 an hour.

“We have smart, qualified, dedicated lawyers who choose, as a public service, to do this work, and I completely share their frustration at their rate of pay,” Pelletier said. “I’m hopeful that over time we are going to get the rate of pay to a more reasonable level.”


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