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May 24, 2024

The Kennebec County Superior Court will allow the ACLU of Maine to name the Attorney General and sue the state over ineffective assistance of counsel, lack of counsel, and unlawful imprisonment.

AUGUSTA – The Kennebec County Superior Court yesterday granted the ACLU of Maine’s motion to supplement claims challenging the state’s failure to uphold people’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel in its lawsuit, Robbins v. MCILS. The court rejected a majority of the state’s opposing arguments.

The order will allow the ACLU of Maine to:

  • Name the Attorney General as a new defendant.
  • Update the factual and legal allegations to address Maine’s worsening crisis. These new allegations focus on the state’s failure to provide attorneys to low-income defendants within a reasonable period after arrest.
  • Proceed on new unlawful detention (habeas corpus) claims against county sheriffs and the state for unconstitutionally imprisoning indigent defendants without providing counsel.

The defendants in this case have sought to prevent the case from going to trial. Earlier this month, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court rejected that attempt. The initial lawsuit, filed on March 1, 2022, focused on the state’s failure to provide effective assistance of counsel to people charged with a crime who cannot afford their own attorney. Since that filing, matters have become gravely worse.

An ACLU of Maine report shows the number of people who have not been appointed an attorney has skyrocketed, growing 497% over the past six months. 633 people were being denied their right to counsel, as of May 8. 144 of them were in custody with no legal representation and 373 had been denied an attorney for at least 30 days.

Though no final decision in Robbins has been issued, the trial court has recognized this escalating crisis. On February 27, 2024, the court ordered the case return to trial on a two-phase schedule. The first phase will focus on whether the state has denied people the right to counsel by failing to provide them with an attorney at all. The second phase will focus on issues raised in the original lawsuit: the systemic lack of supervision, training, and support that risk leaving people with ineffective assistance of counsel.

“The crisis in Maine’s courts is getting worse by the day, with hundreds of people waiting weeks or months for counsel to be appointed,” said ACLU of Maine Chief Counsel Zach Heiden. “That’s unacceptable. The court’s latest order will allow us to address the full scope of this crisis. Ultimately, Maine must follow the law and uphold the people’s constitutional rights.”

The trial will not happen in June, as previously scheduled, due to delays caused by the state's appeal to the Law Court. A new schedule has not been issued. Stay up to date with case movement at