Maine’s highest court has denied the state’s attempt to halt an upcoming trial that will focus on Maine’s inability to find enough attorneys to represent hundreds of low-income criminal defendants.

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which has been renamed the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services, has been battling a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine over this crisis for more than two years.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court at the Kennebec County courthouse in Augusta on Feb. 6. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, file

The ACLU’s original complaint in March 2022 alleged the state was violating the Constitution by failing to provide poor Mainers with effective court-appointed legal counsel. The lawsuit focused on the commission, the state agency tasked with overseeing private attorneys doing indigent defense. It argued the commission was failing to ensure lawyers were spending enough time with their clients.

But in the years since, the question has expanded beyond effective representation to whether there is any representation at all – there are hundreds of Mainers for whom the court and the commission have not been able to find attorneys.

Superior Justice Michaela Murphy denied several proposed settlement agreements between the parties, arguing they were turning a blind eye to a growing crisis. In February, she ordered that they prepare for a trial in June and the ACLU asked to add the governor and the attorney general as defendants. A trial date has not yet been set but the judge is now giving the parties until September to assemble their cases, according to court records.

An attorney for the state appealed Murphy’s order to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court shortly afterward.


Assistant Attorney General Sean Magenis argued Murphy had “abused (her) discretion in determining that the parties proposed settlement agreement was not a ‘fair, reasonable, and adequate’ resolution of the claims” in the ACLU’s original lawsuit.

A spokesperson for Magenis said the attorney general’s office does not comment on pending litigation.

In a May 1 order, Associate Justice Andrew Horton said the appeal did not merit the high court’s consideration because there has been no final judgment. He said even if the court vacated Murphy’s order, it wouldn’t force their latest settlement to be approved.

Horton also said the order doesn’t deprive the state agency of any rights or present a “major or unsettled question of law” that would warrant the high court’s consideration.

The ACLU said it was pleased with the decision Monday. It had urged the court to dismiss the appeal.

“Maine is in the midst of a constitutional crisis as the state continues to deny people their Sixth Amendment right to counsel,” said Chief Counsel Zach Heiden. “We appreciate the Law Court’s decision to move this case forward. … A person’s liberty or experience in the legal system should never depend on their wealth.”

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