A Maine Superior Court Justice has rejected the settlement in a class-action lawsuit claiming Maine has failed its constitutional duty to provide legal representation to the poor, saying the proposed agreement was not in the best interest of the plaintiffs.

“It appears to the court that class counsel concluded this was the best settlement they could obtain from defendants as of August 21, 2023,” Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy wrote in a 21-page decision released Wednesday and first reported on by the Maine Monitor. “That does not of course mean the proposed agreement contains sufficient substantive safeguards, or is otherwise in the best interest of class members.”

Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The ACLU of Maine, which sued the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services in March 2022 on behalf of five incarcerated clients who claimed they were not getting enough time or attention from their attorneys, agreed to a deal last month that would have halted litigation for four years. In the proposed settlement, the commission committed to advocating for more resources from the Legislature, updating its regulatory framework for the private attorneys it contracts with and issuing regular reports on its progress.

But critics said the deal was toothless, because much of it promised only that the commission would advocate for increased resources and support – not that it would actually secure them. As long as the Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills continue to skimp on funds for public defender positions, they argued, poor Mainers’ limited access to legal representation would remain a “crisis.”

“It’s nonsense,” former commission member Bob Cummins said after learning the details of the settlement agreement. “If I were the judge and they handed me this document, I’d hand it back to them and say, ‘OK, boys, now let’s do something real.’”

For a class-action settlement to be finalized, a judge must agree that it is fair, reasonable and adequate.


After expressing initial skepticism about the deal two weeks ago, Murphy explained in her ruling Wednesday why the settlement agreement would not be “judicially enforceable.”

While she said that no one knows exactly how dire a problem it is that fewer lawyers are accepting MCILS cases, she noted that one provision of the proposed agreement – which limits the number of indigent cases an attorney can take on – could exacerbate the issue in the coming years.

Against that backdrop, Murphy said she was particularly concerned that the deal would bar plaintiffs who could not hire their own lawyer from suing the state for failing to provide them adequate counsel during the four-year pause in litigation.

“The court is simply not willing to subject class members to the risk of losing the right to pursue those important constitutional claims in this action, or in another forum,” she wrote. “What is at stake, depending on the evidence presented, could be the deprivation of the fundamental rights to due process and to liberty, and the failure on the part of the State of Maine to fulfill a core function of government.”

Future proceedings are expected to be scheduled during a court hearing on Friday, the Maine Monitor reported.

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