One night 30 years ago, Janet T. Mills, then Maine’s first female district attorney, came home and was greeted by her new stepdaughter, then 6, holding her Barbie doll.

Mills, now the state’s first female attorney general, recalls asking the youngest of her five stepdaughters: Why was Barbie getting all dressed up? Where was Barbie going that night?

“Without a hitch, this 6-year-old says, ‘Well, Barbie had grand jury today, and tonight she has to go to a Democratic fundraiser,” Mills said, laughing as she told the story. “Ooh, the things they hear!”

The child’s quip all those decades ago captures two sides of Mills, who is locked in an escalating dispute with Gov. Paul LePage, who is seeking the power to bypass her office and hire outside counsel.

It is Mills’ very public profile as the state’s top law officer and as a prominent Democrat that has fueled the conflict between her and the second-term Republican governor, who has said Mills has brought her politics into her legal duties.

In June, LePage accused her in his weekly radio address of working for the “Democratic-led Legislature.” More recently, his spokeswoman pointed to Mills’ speech in May in support of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud – then running against LePage for governor – as proof that Mills was a Democrat first. In the speech, Mills credited Democratic lawmakers for balancing the budget, and said that LePage “eschewed governing.”

Their dispute stems from 2013, when Mills was elected by the Democratic-controlled Legislature as attorney general. After taking office, Mills declined to represent LePage’s administration in two high-profile cases in which he sought to cut welfare benefits. Instead, she authorized outside counsel to represent his Department of Health and Human Services commissioner and filed her own court papers opposing LePage in one of the cases.

LePage is now asking the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to intervene, filing a “request for opinion” letter to the court to ask whether he must first seek Mills’ permission to hire outside legal counsel in cases where her office declines to defend the administration’s position. Lawyers for both sides are scheduled to make their arguments on his letter Thursday.

The timing of LePage’s request became more pressing when he filed another request on Feb. 12 asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule a lower court in his battle with the federal government to eliminate Medicaid coverage for about 6,000 low-income young adults in Maine.

Mills responded to LePage’s request with the state court on Feb. 5, arguing that the justices should ignore it because it doesn’t meet the legal hurdle to merit their consideration. She also argued that LePage’s key question had already been answered in a 1991 court ruling.

“The case law is the Attorney General’s Office does have some degree of autonomy. You are not an attorney for hire. Some people feel that, well, if I want legal advice from an attorney and ask them to do something, I want them to do it,” Mills said in a recent interview in her Augusta office. “In private practice – and I was in private practice for many years – people walk in the door and you give them the best legal advice and try to get them the results that they want.

“That’s not the job of the attorney general entirely,” she said. “You do try to achieve the goals of the departments and agencies, but I also want to keep them out of court as best I can. I want to keep the state from being sued because usually it’s a financial burden; it’s a time constraints thing. Why would you want to be sued if you can avoid being sued?”

In the interview, Mills talked about her relationship with LePage, her family and her career of firsts as the first female district attorney in Maine – for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties – and her two stints as attorney general, from 2009 to 2011 and from 2013 to the present day.

She also discussed her personal life, including her marriage in her late 30s to Stanley Kuklinski, a widower with five young children. He died in September at the age of 73.

As attorney general, Mills oversees a staff of 203, including 112 attorneys, who do criminal prosecution of all homicides, felony drug cases, frauds and white-collar crimes. They also advise and represent the state’s agencies and department heads in lawsuits against them.

Mills said the Attorney General’s Office staff has handled thousands of cases since she has headed the department, and only declined to represent the governor twice. She said politics had nothing to do with her decision in either case, since her staff found that both cases lacked legal merit.

“Now it would be kind of awkward for me to say that this is my point of view, that this is the attorney general’s legal view, and then go tell someone else in the office to go take the other position,” Mills said.

A POLITICAL CLASH

LePage, however, has made no secret of the fact that he believes Mills’ loyalty is to her party.

In a weekly public radio address on June 24, 2014, LePage said Mills was working aggressively to keep undocumented immigrants, whom the governor referred to as “illegal aliens,” on welfare rolls in opposition to his efforts to roll back welfare benefits.

“Attorney General Janet Mills was appointed by the Democratic-led Legislature, and she works for them,” LePage said in the address. “What about ‘illegal’ doesn’t she understand? I find it inexplicable that the state’s top law enforcement official would encourage municipalities to violate federal law.”

He has been less pointed since filing his request for opinion with the state’s highest court and the appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.

His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor did not want to comment for this story but pointed out comments in Mills’ speech in support of Michaud’s bid for governor.

“How political of a person is Janet Mills? I think the speech she delivered on May 31, 2014, at the Democratic convention speaks for itself,” Bennett said.

In the video recorded in Bangor, Mills credited “brave” Democratic lawmakers for balancing the state budget “while the governor, refusing to write a budget at all, eschewed governing and headed for Jamaica to play golf.”

Mills went on to call LePage’s first-term actions “junk governance.” She attacked his pro-life stance on abortion, his veto of a bill to provide health services for low-income women and cuts to General Assistance benefits to women with children.

“Governing is not a game of Candy Crush or Farmville. It is not played in a sandbox, throwing dirt in people’s faces. It is not done from a golf course in Jamaica,” Mills said.

Mills, on Friday, didn’t back down from comments she made in that speech.

“If a Democrat can’t criticize a Republican, or vice versa, at their party’s convention then what meaning does the First Amendment have?” she said in an emailed statement.

LePage defeated Michaud in a three-way election last November, garnering 48 percent of the vote. Michaud received 43 percent, and independent Eliot Cutler received 8 percent.

‘THE WHITE SHEEP OF THE FAMILY’

Mills comes from a prominent Republican family and often found herself outnumbered, although her sister is a Democrat, as was her late mother, Kay Mills.

“I’m the white sheep of the family. I chose to be a Democrat when I first enrolled to vote,” she said.

Her brother Peter Mills, a Republican, served in the Maine Senate and ran twice unsuccessfully in Republican primaries for governor. Peter Mills was appointed by LePage in 2011 as executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority and still holds that job.

Her Republican father, the late S. Peter Mills Jr., served five terms in the Maine Legislature between 1939 and 1970. He also served as a municipal court judge and as the U.S. attorney for Maine.

Her sister, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, served as a member of the Democratic National Committee and Maine’s director of public health from 1996 to 2011, when she was fired by the LePage administration.

Civic involvement runs deep in the family, as do the family’s ties to Maine. Her ancestors in 1794 founded Farmington, where Mills was born and still lives.

But Mills says she’s political only because she has served in elected posts, not because she injects politics into her job.

She was the district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties for 18 years, the first woman in the northeastern U.S. to hold such a post, she said.

“That was elected, and it was political, but I don’t think it was political in the negative sense. Nobody ever accused me of playing politics as district attorney,” Mills said.

She adds that politics didn’t color her decision not to represent LePage.

Mills said when she was re-elected in 2013, she handed LePage her cellphone number. But he has never called.

“I suspect that if the governor and I sat down and had a beer, we’d agree on a lot of things, frankly,” Mills said. “I respect what he’s done with the budget. He’s done a lot of interesting things with the budget. I don’t vote on the budget. I don’t go out taking public policy positions on the budget, but I like some of the stuff in the budget as a taxpayer, as a citizen.”

A RARE PUBLIC DISPUTE

Disputes between attorneys general and governors are not unusual in any state. Attorneys general in every state except five are elected by voters, rather than appointed by a governor. Of those five, only New Jersey currently has no attorney general.

But disputes in Maine between a governor and attorney general rarely become so public as the one between LePage and Mills.

James Tierney, who was Maine attorney general from 1981 to 1991, said it’s sometimes the job of the attorney general to disagree with the governor.

Tierney went on to become director of the National State Attorneys General program at Columbia Law School in New York and has instructed newly elected attorneys general on how to perform effectively.

Tierney, a Democrat, served under Govs. Joseph Brennan, a Democrat, and John McKernan Jr., a Republican. He said he frequently said no to both.

“It is no different than any other attorney general in the country,” he said. “This is what I do for work. I counsel attorneys general and governors on this very issue.”

Tierney said there is nothing unusual about the disagreement between Mills and LePage, except how public it is.

“It happens all the time, but usually it’s done secretly because it’s attorney-client information,” Tierney said.

Tierney even ran against McKernan for governor, lost and continued to serve as attorney general, offering counsel to his one-time opponent.

“An inherent part of the job as attorney general is to make the separation of powers work,” he said. “If the attorney general is simply counsel to the governor, you don’t have checks on the governor. You need to have an independent attorney general.”

Tierney also helped set the case law that could be central to the Maine court’s decision on whether to answer LePage’s request for opinion.

Tierney sued the Maine superintendent of insurance in 1991 after determining that a proposed rate increase was unjustifiably high. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court subsequently upheld Tierney’s right to decline to defend the state, based in part on his assertion that the policy was contrary to the public interest.

“Gov. LePage has an agenda, and he wants to make it happen. I don’t blame him for that,” Tierney said.

LePage’s predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, said he couldn’t recall specific disagreements he had with Mills in her first term as attorney general, or with her predecessor, G. Steven Rowe, also a Democrat.

“There will always be agreements and disagreements on particular issues, but those get resolved,” Baldacci said. “We found ways to work together.”

Republican William Schneider served as attorney general during LePage’s first two years in office. Schneider, now a federal terrorism prosecutor, did not return phone messages seeking comment.

Rowe, reached by phone, declined to comment.

SEEKING OUTSIDE COUNSEL

The dispute between LePage and Mills comes not only as he appeals the Medicaid case to the U.S. Supreme Court but as he prepares legislation to allow voters to elect the attorney general.

Attorneys general are popularly elected in 43 states. Only in Maine are they elected by the Legislature. Tennessee’s attorney general is elected by the state Supreme Court.

In the Medicaid case, LePage sought to cut health care benefits for about 6,000 young adults. He lost that case in U.S. District Court, then appealed in 2014 to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston using private attorneys when Mills refused to take the case. Mills intervened by filing a legal brief opposing LePage’s effort. LePage lost again in the appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court is his final avenue of appeal, but four of the nine justices must agree before the court will accept a case, and they hear only about 100 of the thousands they are asked to review each year.

“In the present case, the Attorney General herself has decided to participate as a party in a lawsuit, while claiming veto authority over whether and to what extent her opposing party obtains representation of counsel,” LePage wrote in his Jan. 23 letter to the Maine high court. “She has sought to dictate who may represent the Executive Branch and even to cap the legal fees for that work, even though the payments do not come from her office’s budget. Her office has requested copies of privileged billing entries of the opposing party who paid the bills. I believe none of this is authorized when she is a party on the opposite side of a lawsuit the Executive Branch has deemed advisable in faithful execution of the directive of the Legislature and the policy judgment of the Executive Branch.”

In his letter, LePage asks two questions:

n “If the Attorney General refuses to represent a State agency … in a lawsuit, must the Executive Branch still obtain the Attorney General’s permission to hire outside counsel to represent the agency in the suit?”

n “If the Attorney General intervenes to oppose a State agency in a lawsuit, must the Executive Branch still allow the Attorney General to direct that piece of litigation?”

In the second case in which Mills declined to represent LePage, the Department of Health and Human Services was sued over the administration’s plans to stop reimbursing municipalities for General Assistance to asylum seekers and other noncitizen immigrants. Before that decision, Mills’ office said that DHHS lacked statutory authority and the proposed rules represented an unfunded mandate on municipalities while also raising constitutional concerns.

But Mills points to a third case related to LePage’s welfare agenda in which her office represented the administration in its effort to cut benefits to new immigrants.

“The administration’s desire – and they were successful in taking Maine-Care away from immigrants in their first five years of residency in Maine – we defended it. And the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals said Maine could do that. Now, if I was in the Legislature voting on that policy, I might vote a different way. But we were sued, and we defended the governor and the administration,” Mills said.

A COURT OPINION

LePage isn’t alone in thinking the state’s high court should weigh in on his dispute with Mills.

Baldacci said he had no opinion on their dispute but agreed with LePage that the state’s highest court should answer his questions.

“I think it’s really a good case for the Law Court. I think them weighing into it would give them guidance into the roles and representation,” Baldacci said.

Maine House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said he feels LePage’s questions are warranted because of the potential influence of politics on legal decisions.

“I think that it’s a legitimate question at the end of the day,” Fredette said. “This question of whether she has the authority to say, ‘Well, look, Governor, I have a disagreement with you,’ I think that in itself begs the question, ‘Is this a political decision?'”

Fredette, a lawyer who has known Mills for years, said he believes she brings a mix of legal and political consideration to her actions. He added that he doesn’t think LePage’s questions are politically motivated.

“I am not going to say that Janet Mills makes political decisions in her legal role, but there are quite unquestionably political issues here,” he said.