The head of the state’s indigent legal services agency said Thursday that legal work for poor clients will not be interrupted in the wake of the unexpected departure of the lawyer who was heading up a new unit of public defenders.
Nathaniel Seth Levy, who runs a firm in Portland, started as Maine’s first district defender on Dec. 19, 2022 and was in charge of supervising a team of four assistant public defenders. He resigned on Jan. 20, said Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, who will temporarily take over Levy’s job.
“This will not materially affect the rollout of the Rural Defender Unit. The assistant defenders have begun work and continue to work. This will not result in any interruption or impairment to client services,” Andrus said on Thursday.
Andrus said he is already looking for a replacement. He declined to comment on the reason for Levy’s departure.
Levy told The Maine Monitor that he is returning to his law practice and taking court-appointments through MCILS. He earned a law degree from Golden Gate University in San Francisco and began practicing law in Maine in 2003. He previously served as defense attorney with the Co-occurring Disorders Veterans Court in Augusta and ran as a Democrat for District Attorney in Cumberland County in 2018 — losing to Jonathan Sahrbeck.
Levy declined to answer further questions about his decision to leave.
Levy was one of five lawyers in a newly created unit of public defenders. The unit was approved by the Legislature in April 2022, and the new lawyers began working in late December 2022.
“Any time there’s a shake up we should expect growing pains,” said state Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Dixfield) in response to the news.
Keim led a bipartisan effort to fund the state’s first public defenders last year. She currently sits on the state’s Government Oversight commission, which ended its investigation into MCILS’s oversight of attorney billing after Andrus implemented multiple rule changes. Keim said Andrus has been transparent with lawmakers and the lawyer’s departure didn’t indicate a larger problem at this time.
“It’s disappointing news but there must have been some legitimate reason for that decision and I have no information about what they might have been,” said state Rep. Stephen Moriarty (D-Cumberland). “I don’t think this is an indication of a systemic or structural problem.”
MCILS is responsible for overseeing public defenders and contracted lawyers who have agreed to defend adults and children charged with crimes who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer on behalf of the state. Contracted lawyers also work on cases of parents accused of abuse or neglect, emancipation, involuntary commitment and some probate matters and are reimbursed by the state at $80 an hour.
Meanwhile, Maine state courts continue to struggle to find enough available defense attorneys for indigent defendants in criminal and child protection cases across the state. The new unit of public defenders has absorbed some, but not all, of the need for lawyers in criminal cases, The Maine Monitor reported earlier this month.
At an emergency meeting Wednesday, Andrus was authorized to take over Levy’s responsibilities for no more than six months.
“I’m excited to help provide some direct oversight and participate in providing some client services, because that’s a part of being a lawyer that I have always loved and I have missed,” said Andrus.
Andrus said he has not given thought to whether he would like to move into the district defender role permanently. The workload is too large for the role to be absorbed into the executive director position long-term, he said.
Commissioner Donald Alexander, who voted to temporarily shift the district defender responsibilities to Andrus, said the vacancy could make the rollout of the public defender program a little slower.
“It’s not going to be much slower because Justin’s going to come in and be co-counsel on some of the cases to help that get going and he’s still going to be available to provide leadership and direction,” Alexander said. “The key thing we need to see now is, in fact, how much we can get under the governor’s proposal to give us 10 more (public defenders).”
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, proposed 10 additional public defender jobs in her budget submission to the state Legislature earlier this month. If approved by lawmakers, that would bring the state’s headcount of public defenders to 15 lawyers.
Mills’ budget proposal includes eight positions for relatively inexperienced lawyers and two experienced lawyers, Andrus said. MCILS had already identified that it would need to make adjustments to have more supervisory district defenders — the role that is currently unfilled, he said.
MCILS received several qualified applicants last time it posted the district defender job and the agency is open to past and new candidates, Andrus said. The job is currently based in Augusta and is listed with an annual salary range of $94,432 to $135,012.
The job was posted on the Bureau of Human Resources website on Thursday.
Alexander said he supports the proposed increase of lawyers and hoped it would allow MCILS to place public defenders in rural areas of the state. Lawyers are important to a community, because they know the treatment options, job opportunities, family supports and dynamics of the local sheriff and district attorney offices, Alexander said.
“One of the important roles attorneys play — and why we’re so concerned about attorneys leaving practice in rural areas — is they’re part of the community, and then they can relate and engage that community in dealing with the particular problem they’re dealing with being a criminal situation or a person who needs to get into treatment or a person’s family needs support in a child protective case,” Alexander said.
Samantha Hogan reports on government accountability and the criminal justice system for The Maine Monitor. Reach her by email with other story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org or anonymously through the newsroom’s contact form.