FILE - Courtroom

(The Center Square) – The agency that represents indigent suspects in Maine’s court system is seeking more than $13 million in “emergency” funding from the state to give its public defenders substantial pay raises.

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services has asked lawmakers for a supplemental budget appropriation to increase the hourly rate paid to lawyers from $80 to $150 as part of an effort to expand the number of attorneys who represent indigent clients.

The commission is expected to vote on the funding request at a meeting next week, before submitting the proposal to the state for consideration. To allocate the funding, the state Legislature would need to reconvene to consider the request.

At a hearing before the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee, Executive Director Justin Andrus said the commission is struggling to provide representation for indigent defendants amid a chronic shortage of attorneys.

He said there are only 163 attorneys accepting new cases as of this week – down from 280 at the beginning of the year and more than 400 four years ago.

Maine's court system is struggling amid a backlog of cases as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Andrus told lawmakers, which has been exacerbated by the shortage of attorneys.

"Even if we weren't losing attorneys, we wouldn't have enough people," he told lawmakers during Wednesday's hearing.

Maine is the only state with no court-appointed lawyers for criminal defendants who can't afford representation, a right that is guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment.

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, created in 2009, provides access to about 280 private practice lawyers who accept court-appointed criminal cases.

But critics say the agency is chronically underfunded and a recent watchdog investigation revealed that major felony cases have been assigned to private attorneys that didn't meet the state's minimum practice standards.

A lawsuit filed against Maine by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine on behalf of several criminal defendants alleges that the state is violating state and federal constitutions by failing to provide adequate funding to the public defender program or set and enforce standards for attorneys who participate in the program.

In 2020, the commission spent more than $16.5 million to hire private attorneys through the program, according to the state Attorney General's office.