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Maine Attorney General and ACLU agree to settlement talks in indigent legal services case

The dispute centers on whether Maine provides effective legal representation to the state's low-income population.

AUGUSTA, Maine — State officials and lawyers with the ACLU of Maine starting next week will discuss a potential settlement to a lawsuit that alleges Maine provides ineffective legal services to low-income people who need a lawyer at the state’s expense.

Four settlement meetings between the attorney general’s office and ACLU of Maine are scheduled for Oct. 12 through Nov. 7 to potentially resolve a class action filed in March 2022 that alleges Maine does not adequately train, pay or supervise lawyers for the state’s poor. Similar cases in other states brought by the ACLU have taken multiple years to resolve and a settlement could put an early end to costly litigation.

“I’m thrilled to sit down with the ACLU and hash out ways we can continue to improve our program,” said Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services that is being sued.

Maine is being sued by potentially thousands of men and women, who were charged with a crime and appointed a defense lawyer at the state’s expense. Court-appointed lawyers are supposed to be trained and supervised by the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, but the ACLU alleges the state has not implemented rules, trained lawyers or compensated attorneys properly, which has denied or creates an “unreasonable risk” that defendants will be denied their constitutional right to counsel.

RELATED: Gov. Mills and legislative leaders urged to approve emergency funding of $13.3 million for public defender

Maine is the only state that employs no public defenders and instead relies exclusively on private attorneys to defend the state’s poor against criminal charges and other legal matters. Defendants were assigned lawyers with histories of professional misconduct or who didn’t meet the state’s low standards to be eligible to work on serious cases, investigations by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica found.

Maine is required by the state and federal constitution to fund and provide legal services for its poor. Earlier this year, state lawmakers allocated money to hire five public defenders and MCILS is in the process of filling those jobs. 

However, a record shortage of lawyers accepting new cases through MCILS has resulted in some people recently going days or weeks without a lawyer, the Monitor reported. Commissioners are asking for an emergency appropriation to attract lawyers back to the service.

MCILS does not have the authority to agree to a settlement on its own. The attorney general’s office has determined the state is being sued, not the state agency. A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office confirmed it plans to participate in the settlement talks but didn’t say what the state’s position would be.

Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy denied part of the state’s request to dismiss the case in June and granted the plaintiffs class status in July. 

Settlement talks are common in significant civil litigation, Andrus said. Any settlement, though, will likely require changes in statutory authority for MCILS and financial support by the governor and Legislature, he said.

RELATED: Half of Maine's indigent cases are being defended by small group of lawyers

Andrus anticipates that it will take MCILS and the attorney general’s office a year or more of a staff member’s time to respond to the ACLU’s records demands in the litigation if a settlement is not reached.

“It’s certainly the case that I would rather try to reach some kind of negotiated resolution and spend that same energy implementing productive solutions to the issues rather than spend the same time and energy litigating,” Andrus said.

ACLU of Maine Chief Counsel Zach Heiden said he couldn’t discuss anything related to the settlement negotiations when contacted for comment on Friday.

Active retired Justice Thomas Warren will conduct the settlement conferences starting next Wednesday at the Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland.

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor. The Maine Monitor is a local journalism product published by The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan and nonprofit civic news organization.

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