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Judge to review new settlement in Maine ACLU’s public defender case

State officials and civil rights groups have reached a new settlement to go to a judge over improvements to Maine’s system of providing lawyers to residents who can’t afford them, officials announced Wednesday.

The same judge who rejected the initial settlement offer in September must sign off on the closure of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine’s class action lawsuit.

The new settlement agreement, agreed to by lawyers with the help of a state-appointed mediator, addresses the judge’s concerns, including providing emergency relief for low-income residents who have been left without a state-appointed lawyer for an extended period of time. It is intended to.

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It also sets a proposed timeline for opening a public defender’s office, aims to improve data collection and clarify situations in which indigent clients may sue in the future, the document said. .

“We look forward to the judge granting preliminary approval to the settlement,” said Zach Heiden, chief counsel for the ACLU of Maine.

This photo shows the American Civil Liberties Union logo. (Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)

Before sentencing, Judge Michaela Murphy will likely hold a hearing where she can ask lawyers about the agreement, Heiden said.

The ACLU of Maine has filed a class action lawsuit over deficiencies in the state’s public defender system, alleging that the state fails to provide low-income Maine residents with their constitutional right to an effective attorney.

Five public defenders were hired last year, and until additional funding is provided for more this year, Maine is the only state without a public defender’s office for people who cannot afford a lawyer. was.

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States relied solely on private attorneys paid by the state to handle such cases, but a crisis arose when the number of attorneys taking on state-elected cases began to dwindle.

All states are required to provide attorneys to criminal defendants who cannot afford one. A scathing 2019 report outlined serious flaws in Maine’s system, including lax oversight of billing practices by private attorneys.

Heiden said the settlement addresses the concerns of the Maine Poverty Legal Services Commission, but called on judges, prosecutors, lawmakers and the governor to continue working to improve the system. .

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“Every part of our legal system has a role to play in addressing our nation’s predicament defense crisis,” he said Wednesday.

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