Maine is failing to uphold the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel for people who cannot afford their own attorney – so we sued. After extensive settlement negotiations with the state, we are returning to litigation.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees all people charged with a crime the right to effective assistance of counsel. Maine has failed to uphold that promise and remains the only state in the nation that relies almost entirely on private attorneys for this essential public service. The state provides little oversight and resources, tipping the scales of justice against the people. The current system has failed low-income people accused of a crime in Maine and violated their Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. A person’s freedom should never depend on their wealth.

We sued the state in 2022, in Robbins v. Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Sercives, and sought a settlement with the state. However, the case is returning to litigation in June 2024 and has been expanded to include other Sixth Amendment violations.

Class action lawsuit:

The ACLU of Maine filed this class action lawsuit in state court on behalf of plaintiffs who have been deprived of their constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel. The court granted the case class-action status in July 2022, allowing our clients to represent a class of thousands of indigent defendants in Maine who are entitled to court-appointed counsel.  

This initial lawsuit alleged that the state violated the Constitution by failing to set and enforce standards for attorneys who participate in the state’s indigent defense program, failing to monitor and evaluate these attorneys, failing to ensure adequate funding to the program, and failing to provide training to these attorneys.  

The lawsuit alleges that the state’s systemic failures deprive indigent defendants facing criminal proceedings in Maine of their Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. The court rejected the state’s request to dismiss the case. This moved the case forward to pre-trial discovery, allowing us to request written evidence and witness testimony from the state about its indigent defense program.  

Settlement negotiations and returning to litigation:

In August and November 2023, we submitted proposed settlement agreements. Because this is a class action lawsuit, any settlement must be approved by the court. Following the court's rejection of the second settlement agreement, we filed an amended lawsuit to return to litigation.

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. Justice Michaela Murphy, who is hearing the case, wrote in her latest order that as the number of attorneys available to provide indigent defense has fallen, the risk of denial of counsel “has become more than a risk for many Class Members.”

While the court praised the proposed settlement agreement for ensuring the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services appropriately supervises, evaluates, supports, and trains defense counsel, it also ordered the parties to address the state’s failure to provide some indigent defendants with attorneys at all.

The court set a March 8 deadline for the plaintiffs to amend their original complaint to add new claims and parties. Litigation will happen on a two-phase schedule. The first phase will focus on whether the state has denied class members the right to counsel by failing to provide them with an attorney. 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 trial for the first phase will begin the last week of June 2024.

Expanded claims, appeal, and delay:

On March 8, we filed an amended lawsuit expanding our claims against the state for denial of the right to counsel. Our amended lawsuit added new facts and legal claims focused on the escalating crisis of people being charged with a crime and then waiting weeks before getting an attorney.

On March 15, the state opposed our motion to expand the lawsuit. Later that same day, the state also filed an appeal asking the Law Court to reverse the court’s order setting the case for trial in June and denying preliminary settlement approval. We quickly filed a motion to dismiss the state’s appeal. The appeal was premature because the trial court had not yet made a final ruling, and the appeal only serves to delay and distract from the urgent problem of people waiting weeks to be provided counsel.

On May 8, the Law Court denied the state's appeal. The case has returned to Kennebec County Superior Court. Due to the state's appeal delaying the case, the trial will not happen in June. As of this writing (May 13), a new schedule has not been issued.


Zachary Heiden, Carol Garvan, Anahita Sotoohi, Matt Warner, Kevin Martin, Gerard Cedrone, Jordan Bock

Pro Bono Law Firm(s)

Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau & Pachios, LLP; Goodwin Proctor LLP

Date filed

March 1, 2022


Kennebec County Superior Court



Case number

Kennebec County Superior Court Docket No. CV-22-54