New state legal defense director wants to bring young attorneys in to do ‘important work’

ATTORNEY

Jim Billings, the new director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, in his Augusta office on Friday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Decades before taking over Maine’s system to provide legal representation for poor Mainers, Jim Billings cut his teeth accepting court-appointed clients.

It was an ad hoc system in the early 2000s when he got started, Billings said in a recent interview. Judges could select any private attorney to represent someone who couldn’t afford their own lawyer. There were no rules on who could take cases. Lawyers were reimbursed a little more than $50 an hour, which wasn’t enough to cover paralegal fees or other resources.

“It was more of a way to get experience, hopefully get retained cases, while also providing a necessary public service,” Billings said. “And if you had an interest in the work, it was gratifying.”

Billings is now wrapping up his first month as executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, an independent state agency created in 2009 to supervise the attorneys courts hire to defend low-income Mainers. He took over for Justin Andrus, who announced his departure in February, saying he wanted to return to private practice.

It’s a critical time for indigent defense in Maine. The commission has been the subject of several recent investigations, legislative oversight and an ongoing lawsuit by the ACLU of Maine. The number of private attorneys accepting indigent cases reached near-record lows last month, even after state leaders agreed to increase the reimbursement rate from $80 an hour to $150 an hour.

But Billings contends the system has come a long way since his early days accepting indigent cases. He hopes that under his leadership the commission will bring more attorneys back to the rosters without compromising recent efforts to improve attorney supervision.

“To me, the biggest challenge is recruiting attorneys who want to do this work,” Billings said. “I think we have to make it clear that this is important work, and the people that do this work should be appreciated and it shouldn’t be viewed as some sort of second-tier type legal profession, because it is not.”

EYE ON CRIMINAL DEFENSE

Billings, who grew up outside Ellsworth, passed the state bar in 2002 after graduating from the University of Maine School of Law in 2000.

He started out as an attorney for a civil litigation firm in Portland in 2005 following a couple of clerkships in Vermont and Utah before moving to Augusta to work for Lipmann, Katz & McKee, where he started taking on appointed criminal cases.

Billings joined attorney Walt McKee as a partner at a new firm in 2012. He also was president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in 2015. Amber Tucker, who now leads the group, said Billings’ time with the association and in state government makes him well-equipped to lead the commission.

“He understands what it is like to be a working criminal defense attorney and the paramount importance of providing well-funded quality legal representation to those persons accused of crimes in Maine,” Tucker wrote in an email.

Billings had stopped taking court-appointed cases by 2016 when he went to work as chief counsel for the Maine Department of Transportation – but he said he remained passionate about criminal defense and kept up with the commission’s work. When he applied to run the commission this year, he said it was a chance to make a systemic impact in a field he cared about.

In the commission’s early days, many defense attorneys stopped accepting court appointments. New eligibility requirements created extra work and many said the reimbursement rate was still too low to cover office costs, paralegal fees and personal salaries.

The attorneys who stayed were taking on larger caseloads, to the point where they could no longer accept new clients. Many defendants had to wait long days, sometimes weeks, for a lawyer. Those complaints have spurred investigations into whether the state is meeting its Sixth Amendment requirements and an ACLU lawsuit the state is still defending itself against.

Weeks after Billings rejoined the commission on May 22, staff reported that there were just over 200 attorneys actively accepting cases. About 165 are accepting trial-level work.

NEW STATE INVESTMENT

Billings is hopeful the state’s first set of public defense attorneys might make a difference.

Last spring, lawmakers agreed to let the commission create the rural defenders unit, a deployable team of four public defense attorneys and a lead district defender who take court cases in rural communities where the courts are struggling to appoint private counsel.

Since starting work last year, these attorneys have taken on dozens of criminal cases in Aroostook, Washington and Penobscot counties. And lawmakers have included funding for more public defenders in their most recent budget proposal – changing course after years of pleas from the commission for more money fell on deaf ears.

The new budget marks a shift in state leaders’ trust in the commission, said Chairman Joshua Tardy. The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee agreed this year to wrap up nearly three years of mandatory check-ins with the commission, which lawmakers ordered after an investigation in 2020 found it lacked oversight and organization.

Tardy expects lawmakers will trust the commission more now because of Billings’ experience in state government.

“I have great confidence that Jim Billings will be an able legislative advocate and that he’ll be a trusted source of expertise to the Legislature going forward,” Tardy said.


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