Students for the Sixth Amendment Call for more Defense Lawyers
By: Dakota Eddy, News Editor
October 3rd was a big day for the Maine School of Law. Students for the Sixth Amendment, a student organization, hosted an event with important figures such as Rachel Rossi, the Director of the Office for Access to Justice at the United States Department of Justice, and several other defense lawyers across New England. The event was titled “Fulfilling the VI Amendment in Maine and Beyond”, focusing around the issue of the lack of public defenders in Maine and across the country, resulting in a failure to uphold the VI Amendment- the right to an attorney, and a fair, speedy trial.
For years now, Maine has been lacking public defenders. This draws out the time that defendants are stuck awaiting trial, just because they cannot afford their own lawyer, and there are not enough public defenders to keep up the amount of cases. According to Maine Pretrial Services, the average time for defendants awaiting disposition of their case in 2021 was 190 days.
In the half hour leading up to the event, Maine Law students, undergraduate students, and law practitioners were congregating in the main lobby of their new building at 300 Fore Street. This provided a great networking opportunity for law students and undergraduates to speak with and learn from actual law practitioners, while sharing amazing food catered by Sodexo.
Once it was time to begin, people were directed into the Moot Court Classroom, where Dean Leigh Saufley introduced Rachel Rossi. Rossi shared the history of her career, reflecting on the times she watched disadvantaged people struggling through the criminal justice system. The Department of Justice is committed to providing access to justice for everyone, not just those who can afford it.
Even though Rossi is no longer a public defender, she would always redo her experiences as one, saying, “If you choose to represent clients, you have the opportunity to change someone’s life.” As a public defender, you force everyone in the courtroom to hear your client’s story, to demand justice, rehabilitation, and the humanity of your client.
“We need your fresh perspective,” Rossi said. “We want to learn from the next generation of lawyers to support them to join the fight.”
Two members of the Students for the Sixth Amendment then began asking questions to the panel of lawyers. Members on the panel included: Mackenzie Deveau, Maine Rural Defender Unit; Pamela Jones, New Hampshire, Managing Attorney, New Hampshire Public Defender; Marshall Pahl, Vermont, Deputy Defender General, Chief Juvenile Defender; and Amber Tucker, President of Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The panelists were first asked what brought them to public defense.
Jones has been a public defender in Maine for sixteen years. She originally had planned to work in the social work field, but after working with juveniles labeled as “gang kids”, she decided she wanted to be a lawyer. “I wanted to speak up for these kids,” she said.
Deveau is a recent graduate of the Maine Law School, and said, “All I wanted was to be a public defender in Maine. Selling real estate was not fun.”
Pahl was the opposite story, never having intentions of becoming a lawyer. He was a teacher, and when his school closed, he practiced the LSAT with a friend; after seeing his score, he decided he would go to law school. He said his personality directed him towards public defense. “No one wants our clients to win, so when you do, it’s the best. I haven’t had a single client I didn’t like,” Pahl said.
Tucker got her undergraduate degree in Criminology with a minor in Political Science from University of Tampa. She believed that law school would provide more options for her, and gravitated towards public defense. After law school, she moved to Tampa, Florida, and practiced there for a few years before deciding to return to Maine. “I think it’s exciting being in the courtroom, saving people’s lives. They’re more than just a case file on my desk.”
Jones talked about her experience as a public defender in New Hampshire, where they have an office for public defenders, with a union, and a full team to support each other. For lawyers just joining them, six weeks of training is required, along with a mentor that stays with them for a year. “Maine is missing that,” Jones said. “It makes us better lawyers.”
This was echoed by Pahl, explaining that Vermont had a similar process. In Vermont, public defenders have access to experts to help weigh in on cases, such as psychologists determining if a defendant has a mental illness or condition that may have effects on the outcome of their case. “Access to resources is vital,” Pahl said.
“Solo practitioners in Maine often aren’t aware of the budget to resources,” Deveau noted.
Vermont has been undergoing some changes with the definition of “juvenile”, extending the juvenile access to justice to people up to 22 years old. Pahl says this has been helping with recidivism rates.
Students for the Sixth Amendment then asked a specific question for Deveau, asking her to talk about her experience in the Rural Defense Unit. She discusses the divided population that is or isn’t in favor of a public defense office, and how that provides challenges for her team. “Five attorneys will not save our state,” she said. “A lot more is needed.” Despite its challenges, Deveau loves working in rural Maine.