Henry Griffin is sworn in as a witness on May 19 in Androscoggin County Superior Court in Auburn where he practiced as a court-appointed defense attorney for 25 years. May 19 was his last day in that practice. On that day, he testified in his role as a court-appointed protective custody attorney in a case where the Maine Department of Health and Human Services removed children from the home of a woman who later attended the judiciary’s Family Drug Treatment Court program.

AUBURN — Henry Griffin was in the Androscoggin County courtroom on May 19, doing what he’d been doing for the past 25 years, advocating for the underclass.

Griffin, 55, had been one of dozens of defense attorneys listed on the roster of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services for the local courts, paid by the state to defend Mainers who can least afford it.

That chapter of his life drew to a close May 19; Griffin said he could no longer afford to take on those cases that comprised roughly 90 percent of his legal workload.

With one child in college, another starting in the fall and a third likely to seek higher education in a couple of years, Griffin needed a steadier income. As a self-employed defense attorney whose practice relies on contractual payments from a state that has underfunded its budget earmarked for indigent defendants’ attorneys fees, Griffin was feeling the pinch.

On May 30, he’ll start his new job working for that same state as a staff assistant attorney general, where he’ll earn a steady paycheck, plus benefits.

Griffin and the dozens of Maine attorneys like him who are paid nominal hourly rates to represent court-appointed clients learned recently they wouldn’t be paid until early July for any work done after May 2 this year.

As much as he loves his job, Griffin said he had to put his family’s needs first.

“I’ve been doing this a long time and the toughest part of it quite honestly has been the financial side of it,” he said last week.

“I love the court-appointed work, the criminal defense work, trial work,” he said.

But the stresses involved in running a business compounded by the uncertainty that comes with politically volatile state budgeting got to be too much.

“A great opportunity was presented that I gladly accepted,” he said. “I’m ready for a change.”

John Pelletier, executive director of the commission that oversees the day-to-day operations of paying court-appointed attorneys in Maine, said Monday the window is quickly closing for the Legislature to make up a $2.8 million shortfall for the current fiscal year. In the last fiscal year that ended last July, lawmakers fully funded the commission’s $18.3 million budget. But this year, the state approved only $15.5 million for the commission. That money ran out earlier this month.

The fiscal year 2018 budget calls for $19.4 million. That money has yet to be approved by the Legislature. And if it is, Pelletier said his commission will still need an additional $2.8 million to fill this year’s gap.

Court-appointed attorneys generally represent poor defendants in criminal cases where there is a risk of jail. But, Pelletier said they also are appointed by the courts in child protective cases where a parent risks losing her parental rights (such as Griffin’s last case,) in certain juvenile cases and when someone faces involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital.

“When fundamental civil liberty is at stake and the state is seeking to impinge upon that, the courts have ruled that if you can’t afford a lawyer, you’re entitled to a lawyer to resist or challenge the efforts of the state,” Pelletier said, “and that’s what our lawyers do.”

When state government fails to pay the cost of those services, “It puts the state at risk of not meeting its constitutional obligation,” he said.

Having a court-appointed attorney is good for society overall, he said.

“The lawyers doing the criminal cases are a main gateway for people with untreated mental health and substance abuse issues to get into treatment,” Pelletier said, “because the lawyers understand that if they help facilitate treatment, a criminal case or the child protective case will likely lead to a better resolution and it’s better for everyone if this person gets treatment and hopefully stays out of the criminal justice system.”

John Clifford V, whose office is in Lisbon Falls, is president of the Androscoggin County Bar Association whose membership includes court-appointed attorneys in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

He said state lawmakers continue to increase the seriousness of crimes from misdemeanors to felonies, while forcing on the judiciary system mandatory minimum sentences on certain criminal charges, all of which increases the cost of the system. But “the Legislature doesn’t seem to be able to or want to pay for this.”

Funding court-appointed attorneys is not a new problem.

The commission experienced a shortfall in 2013, Pelletier noted. And before the commission took over the task from the state judiciary system in 2010, funding had been a problem.

Clifford said court-appointed defense attorneys fill a needed role in the community.

“It’s noble work that we do,” he said. “I know a lot of the general public doesn’t think that it is. But sometimes we really are able to help out people who have no other place to turn.”

In Maine, most people facing criminal charges don’t have the means to hire a private attorney, he said.

But, Clifford, who works in an office with other attorneys, said defense attorneys who practice on their own — like Griffin — are at a financial disadvantage.

“If I was by myself doing just court-appointed stuff, geez, I don’t know how the hell I’d make it,” he said.

Pelletier said the shortfall hasn’t appeared to spark a mass defection by court-appointed attorneys. No attorneys who take on court-appointed defendants have called him requesting to be removed from his roster, he said.

“But it’s certainly a concern,” he said.

James Howaniec, a Lewiston defense attorney, said Griffin’s departure exemplifies the damage the state’s failure to provide constitutionally protected services to Maine residents has wrought.

“Obviously, it’s becoming a major problem when we’re losing experienced defense attorneys to the state because the state is unwilling to fund the indigent defense system,” he said.

“There already is a substantial imbalance in favor of the prosecution in these cases and it’s becoming exacerbated during this budget dilemma,” he said. “It’s incredibly unfair to those in need of indigent legal services. We have an experienced, highly regarded defense attorney serving here in Androscoggin County for over two decades helping poor people, helping to defend their constitutional rights, assisting people with mental illness and substance abuse issues and people struggling in poverty, and the state is not willing to provide at least basic compensation for those very important services. Henry Griffin is a perfect example of how the system is really coming apart at the seams,” Howaniec said.

“I truly believe in the end, innocent people are going to be convicted of crimes and poor people are going to be treated more harshly than people with means, and that’s simply not fair,” he said.

Griffin’s outlook on his job move strikes a more philosophical tone.

“For me, I’m not switching sides and I tell people this,” he said. “I’m just playing on a different part of the team. And I have absolutely no issue with doing that, so . . . I’m an advocate and I’m proud to be an advocate for indigent folks of Lewiston-Auburn. But now I’ll advocate in a different way.”

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