Superior Court Justice Ann Murray (center) talks to attorneys during the opening arguments of a murder trial at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor on Jan. 22, 2018. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Good morning from Augusta. 

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “We have a lot of people who are ready for this to be over,” said Chris Laird, a critical care nurse at Eastern Maine Medical Center, on the stress posed to frontline health care workers by the recent COVID-19 surge, which has tested resources at the Bangor hospital and others across the state.

What we’re watching today

A surge in criminal cases has the embattled agency providing lawyers to low-income clients fearing it may not be able to staff all of them. While the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services got nearly $19 million in new funding in the two-year budget passed by the Legislature earlier this year to pay its roster of lawyers more, it is still struggling with an exodus of lawyers due to low pay, high workloads and other issues at play for years.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has piled more problems atop the system. As courts emerged from backlogs, the commission handled a record of nearly 29,000 cases in the last fiscal year. But the newest projections, based on even higher case counts emerging in courts across the state and the summer workloads of rostered attorneys, suggest bigger problems.

At the commission’s May-July pace, it would deal with 31,000 cases in this fiscal year, according to a memo from Justin Andrus, the agency’s executive director. If July was predictive, it would be 33,000. The problem is likely to hit certain areas harder, with Penobscot County seeing pending felony cases up 75 percent from one day in August to roughly the same time last year.

If cases increased to 33,000, the commission would not be able to staff all cases, Andrus said. It comes as the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is threatening to sue the state for violating defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial. The stakes are high for the system as the commission meets at 9 a.m. on Monday to discuss the problem. Listen here.

The Maine politics top 3

— “Staff COVID-19 exposures blunt Maine hospitals’ ability to fight critical case surge,” Jessica Piper, Bangor Daily News: “The sudden rise in virus cases is hitting hospitals on two fronts: COVID-19 hospitalizations here have risen 62 percent in the past week and the number of patients requiring critical care surged to 71 on Friday, tying the highest single-day total, while community transmission is leading health care workers to test positive or have to quarantine due to possible virus exposure.”

Critical care numbers improved slightly over the weekend, but hospitalizations are still as high as they have been in six months. The number of available ICU beds statewide rose to 57 on Sunday, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah, up from just 34 late last week. There were still 71 COVID-19 patients in ICU beds and 142 people hospitalized statewide with the disease, down slightly from Friday but still higher than any day since February.

— “Maine experts say COVID-19 resurgence will dampen fall season for businesses,” Lori Valigra, BDN: “The state’s businesses have been buzzing along since pandemic restrictions were lifted and pent-up demand for travel and leisure boosted sales this summer. Maine tax revenue for retail, automobiles, restaurants and lodging rose to $3.22 billion in June, up from $2.59 billion the previous June, according to state data. That is higher than the pre-pandemic sales taxes.”

Federal unemployment benefits are set to expire for more than 20,000 Mainers next week. Two programs that have provided extended benefits to people who would normally be ineligible for benefits or whose benefits had expired come to an end on Sept. 4. Another 7,500 people receiving state unemployment benefits will also see their weekly payments decline as an additional $300 weekly payment expires.

— “Lawsuit: Maine ‘slumlord’ rented family house with raw sewage,” Josh Keefe, BDN: “By late August, the plumbing stopped working properly and raw sewage began leaking into the house, forcing the family to go without running water for days at a time. After several delays, LH Housing eventually brought in a plumber who fixed the problem but left an ‘outrageous mess’ in the house including raw sewage that the plumber never cleaned, the suit said.”

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Jessica Piper and Michael Shepherd. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but contact the political team at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com, candrews@bangordailynews.com or jpiper@bangordailynews.com.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...