A civil liberties organization is suing the state of Maine and several of its leaders for failing to provide lawyers for poor Mainers charged with crimes.

The ACLU of Maine said in an amended complaint Friday that various state leaders are failing to uphold federal and state laws that demand that the state provide attorneys for criminal defendants who can’t afford their own. It specifically names Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey.

Superior Justice Michaela Murphy talks with Sean Magenis, the attorney representing Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, at Kennebec County Superior Court in September. The hearing was regarding ACLU of Maine’s lawsuit against the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services and Justice Murphy set a new meeting date during the hearing. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The filing is the latest in the ACLU’s two-year effort on the issue. A judge ordered the organization last week to file a new complaint after she rejected two settlement agreements the ACLU had reached with the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, a quasi-state agency tasked with overseeing court-appointed lawyers.

Previously, the ACLU had been suing only the commission. Its director and chair did not respond to an email Friday seeking to discuss the new complaint, which still names the commissioners as defendants.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Maine Attorney General declined to discuss the complaint Friday. A spokesperson for Mills did not respond to a request to discuss the allegations. All of the defendants have a week to object to being named. The lawsuit also names every county sheriff as a respondent for holding people who the ACLU says are being jailed in violation of their rights.



In its first complaint filed in March 2022, the ACLU argued that the commission wasn’t doing enough to train and monitor the attorneys it worked with. But the crisis has deepened over the last two years. The state isn’t just failing to provide effective counsel, it’s failing to provide any counsel at all.

Between 2017 and earlier this year, the commission went from working with more than 400 attorneys to overseeing just 295 – only about 130 of whom are currently accepting new cases. At the same time, the ACLU says criminal prosecutions rose from 25,824 in 2017 to 30,656 last year, a nearly 19% increase.

More than 400 defendants were waiting for a lawyer as of Monday, the complaint states. Many were involved in more than one case, and many have waited longer than a month. More than 100 of these unrepresented defendants were in jail.

By law, the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services is responsible for finding, training, monitoring and paying the attorneys who represent indigent clients.

“But that understaffed, under-resourced agency – and the system of predominantly private attorneys that it oversees – is not capable of meeting the demand for legal services that the state itself creates,” the complaint states. “The state is now routinely failing to appoint counsel for indigent defendants for extensive periods after their right to an attorney attaches.”

Until the state can solve the issue and find enough attorneys to handle the number of prosecutors, the ACLU is asking Kennebec County Superior Justice Michaela Murphy to evaluate whether these defendants are being charged and locked up legally, given their lack of counsel, and whether they should be released or have their cases dismissed.


Zachary Heiden, the ACLU’s chief counsel, said Friday that Murphy will have “broad latitude” to consider remedies to these violations. They could include dismissing charges or releasing people from jail.

“This is really challenging the illegality of continuing to hold somebody or continuing to hold criminal charges over someone’s head for weeks or months without providing them an attorney,” Heiden said.

Murphy has said she wants to go to trial in June.

She rejected two proposed settlements in which both parties agreed that the commission didn’t have the statutory ability to address the full scope of the state’s indigent defense crisis. The settlements asked the commission to “advocate” for more funding, and its desired outcome for a more robust network of public defense offices relied heavily on outside cooperation from court officials, the governor’s office and state lawmakers.

But Murphy wasn’t satisfied with that. She said she wanted a lawsuit that addresses a lack of attorneys who can represent indigent clients.

In naming the state, the governor and the attorney general as defendants, the ACLU is now going after the whole system, not just the commission tasked with overseeing it.


“The state has an obligation to make sure that people have lawyers,” Heiden said. “And that’s an obligation for the entire state, not just the Commission on Indigent Legal Services.”


Just about everyone involved in Maine’s criminal justice system agrees that the system is in crisis.

There’s no question that “the system is broken,” the lawsuit states.

Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill said as much in a speech to the Legislature last month.

Last fall, court leaders ordered district judges to reevaluate bail conditions for every jailed person still waiting on a lawyer on a weekly basis.


While some judges agree their defendants’ rights are being violated, they say they still struggle to release them out of fear for public safety or a history of violating release conditions. The ACLU said the process also relies heavily on the state’s “lawyer of the day” program, in which an attorney represents a defendant temporarily for initial appearances and bail arguments.

The ACLU called the program “constitutionally deficient” because these attorneys aren’t present for all the stages of a person’s case.

“Witnesses must be interviewed before memories grow stale,” the complaint states. “Requests for preservation of evidence must be made, and discovery must be requested and reviewed. Plea bargains must be negotiated. Bail and conditions of release must be advocated for. There is a tremendous risk that, when counsel is not provided on a timely basis, the damage to the defendant’s ability to contest the charges against him can never be repaired.”

When two defense lawyers, working pro bono, asked a Maine Supreme Judicial Court justice to release a handful of unrepresented defendants last year, they were denied. The justice overseeing their case said it would be a better argument in a civil class action, like the ACLU’s.

But Heiden said Friday that the immediate relief the ACLU is seeking from Murphy is only short-term.

The ACLU’s complaint alleges many of these violations are a result of the state’s failure “to develop and resource a public defense system that is capable of responding to the ever-growing demand for prosecutions.”

Maine was the only state without a public defender’s office until 2022 when lawmakers agreed to create the first team of state-employed defense lawyers. The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which oversees those offices as well, has asked lawmakers for sustained support and funding so it can open public defense offices around the state.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee this week introduced emergency legislation to open a public defender’s office in Aroostook, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, where there are a high number of unrepresented defendants in jail.

On Friday, there was only one attorney available on the commission’s roster to take OUI cases in Aroostook County and two available for any homicide charges. There were no attorneys available to permanently represent defendants on any other case type.

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