In a landmark decision, Maine’s highest court ruled that a government entity acted in bad faith when it withheld public documents. This ruling shows that Maine’s open records laws have teeth, and that when the government illegally denies access to public documents, it will pay the price.

Access to public records is at the foundation of democracy. It ensures the people’s right to hold their government accountable. Public records are vital to making educated choices at the ballot box, evaluating state agencies, and protecting against government officials’ bad actions.

For these reasons, people have a right to access public records upon request under the state’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA). It is not only wrong but illegal to withhold public records when a member of the public asks to see them.

Case Background:

In 2021, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) requested records relating to a legal settlement in the Kennebec County jail. An incarcerated person had alleged the use of violence and racial slurs by jail staff. The Maine County Commissioners Association Self-Funded Risk Pool settled the case. The risk pool is a government entity that provides risk management services to Maine counties and supplied the funds to settle the Kennebec County lawsuit.

The risk pool refused to release the public records, so we took on HRDC as a client and sued in state court in 2021.

Trial Court Victory:

In December 2022, the Kennebec County Superior Court ruled in our favor. Justice Daniel I. Billings found that the risk pool had wrongfully withheld public documents in its possession relating to the settlement.

Justice Billings further concluded that “the Risk Pool’s behavior was so deceptive and abusive of the FOAA process” as to warrant a finding of bad faith. As a result of finding the risk pool acted in bad faith, we were able to request attorney fees from the risk pool for our time spent working on the case.

A New Standard Established at Maine’s Highest Court:

The risk pool appealed our victory to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. In June of 2023, the court upheld Justice Billings’ decision, marking the first case testing the “bad faith” provision of Maine’s public records law.

Interpreting ‘bad faith’ under FOAA for the first time, the court held that when a government actor responds dishonestly to a records request, such behavior can constitute bad faith. With a finding of bad faith, the person or entity requesting public documents can recover costs incurred. This is so people can recoup funds spent when they are forced to file a lawsuit to obtain public documents that should have been turned over in the first place.

In a December 2023 order granting the ACLU of Maine’s request for fees, Justice Billings ruled, “[t]he fact that this amount of time was required to resolve this matter is ridiculous. However, the blame for this rests squarely with the defendant.” The risk pool was ordered to pay an award of just over $130,000 to the ACLU of Maine.

This landmark decision affirms that public entities have an obligation to be transparent, to communicate promptly, and to facilitate timely access when responding to requests for access to public documents under Maine’s open records law. This victory puts government entities on notice that Maine’s public records law has teeth. If they illegally withhold public information, they will pay the price.

See the public records here.


Carol Garvan, Zachary Heiden, Anahita Sotoohi

Date filed

July 27, 2021


Lower Court: Kennebec County Superior Court; Appellate Court: Maine Supreme Judicial Court



Case number

Lower Court: CV-21-131; Appellate Court: Ken-22-420