Baldacci to select indigent legal services panel

Posted July 13, 2009, at 9:35 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci is expected within the next several weeks to appoint members of a new independent commission that will oversee legal services for the poor.

Baldacci plans to submit names of his five nominees to the Legislature in advance of a confirmation session that’s expected in late summer or early fall, said spokesman David Farmer.

The governor on Monday joined supporters of the legislation that created the new commission, which is similar to those in more than 40 other states that have independent panels to oversee legal services for people who can’t afford to pay for them. Maine’s new law took effect upon Baldacci’s signature on June 17. He ceremonially signed it at Monday’s gathering.

Under previous law, state judges oversaw the roughly $10 million that the state spends each year to provide indigent legal services. Supporters of the new system argued that having judges in the position of ruling on compensation and expenses for only one side in court cases created the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The new law places those decisions with an independent, five-member panel called the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. The commission also will oversee other indigent defense issues such as fee schedules and lawyer training, said Robert Clifford, a state supreme court justice who led a study group that recommended the new law.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who also attended Monday’s event, said the new law “is the right thing to do and this is the right time to do it.”

Baldacci said the creation of the commission “has been described as an important first step — one that will ensure that all Mainers, regardless of their ability to pay, have access to effective representation.”

The Maine Civil Liberties Union, as well as the Maine Bar Association and other lawyers’ groups, supported the new law.

“The Supreme Court has said you are entitled to more than a warm body in a blue suit,” said the MCLU’s Zachary Heiden. “This is about a fundamental right, that the quality of justice we receive is not dependent on our wealth.”

Baldacci said 42 states have recognized the potential conflict of interest of having judiciaries decide legal representation and compensation issues and have gone with independent commissions.

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