It should be big news when the state of Maine violates the U.S. Constitution. Instead, when it comes to legal defense for the poor, it’s just another day.

This time, it was at least 23 people in Aroostook County whose request for legal services was granted by a judge based on their low income, but who waited an average of about 60 days for legal representation.

The delay was a clear violation of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees effective legal representation to all defendants charged with a crime. And the report says it is unknown just how many other defendants are in this same situation.

But it was just the latest example of Maine’s flailing system crying out for change – pleas that have so far been ignored in Augusta.

Maine is the only state without a public defender’s office, choosing instead to pay private attorneys to represent clients who can’t afford a lawyer themselves, paying a flat rate through the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

There is a reason no other state does it this way. On its best day, Maine’s indigent legal aid is inadequately funded and monitored. As the problems have gotten worse, and attorneys have left the system, fewer have been left to defend poor defendants, leading to large gaps in the quality of representation.


This is no surprise to anyone in Maine’s legal or political realms. It has gotten so bad that the ACLU of Maine filed suit against the commission for failing to adequately represent poor defendants in violation of their Sixth Amendment rights. In June, a judge allowed the suit to move forward.

Not long after the suit was filed, a member of the commission with a long history in indigent defense, in Maine and elsewhere, resigned in protest, citing the state’s indifference to improving the system.

“There is a crisis in this state,” Robert Cummins said at the time in an interview with the Press Herald. “It’s not properly funded. The wonderful lawyers who sacrifice their time are not supported. It’s not getting any better, it’s getting worse.”

Robert Cummins, who resigned from the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services in his Portland office Friday, April 1, 2022. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

The system isn’t working, and it hasn’t worked for a while. It’s not getting better, and it won’t without major changes.

That’s the nearly unanimous judgement on Maine’s indigent legal aid system, and it has been for some time.

Yet the Legislature this year failed to take significant steps toward a solution. Gov. Janet Mills proposed increased funding for the commission and higher pay for attorneys, but neither made the final budget.


Instead, lawmakers moved modestly, including in the budget $1.25 million for Maine’s first public defender’s office, however small: a group of five roving attorneys who will fill in wherever they are needed to help poor defendants.

Maybe it was all they could agree to. But no one believes it will be anywhere near enough.

Even more funding for the commission may not do the job in the long run.

Instead, Maine will continue to violate constitutional rights until it puts in place a full, robust public defender’s office, just as every other state has.

After all, Maine hasn’t figured out something the other 49 states missed, and the sooner lawmakers realize that, the better.


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