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.