Portland attorney, Rob Ruffner, with his dogs, Gideon, front, Flynne and Luke, outside of his Portland office on Wednesday. Ruffner, who is the director of Maine Indigent Defense Center, has filed a petition alongside co-counsel Rory McNamara asking the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to release a woman who has been in jail for 80 days and hasn’t been appointed legal counsel. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Two Maine attorneys with serious concerns about the state’s indigent legal defense system have asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to release a woman who they say has been jailed for more than 80 days without a court-appointed lawyer. The petition filed Wednesday also seeks the release of anyone “similarly situated.”

Angelina Dube Peterson, 29, has been in custody since her arrest in Aroostook County on June 28 on drug trafficking and possession charges, according to court documents. She was later transferred to the York County Jail, where she remains in custody.

Though she was granted bail and appeared before a judge at least twice, she has no appointed attorney, the petition states. Her ability to post bail was revoked in July when she was charged with violating probation. A note on the file says “bail may be reviewed when counsel appears.”

The petition, written on Peterson’s behalf by attorneys Rory McNamara and Robert Ruffner, says that when district judges Sarah Gilbert and Carrie Linthicum signed forms to appoint an attorney for Peterson, they left the space for the lawyer’s name blank.

The case, if the high court agrees to consider it, could have implications for an unknown number of pretrial criminal defendants in Maine who are entitled to a court-appointed attorney, but are not currently represented.

For months, Ruffner has been filing motions in lower courts, including Penobscot County Superior Court, asking judges to dismiss charges or release defendants who he says have not been properly appointed attorneys. He said a judge recently appointed him to represent an indigent client – despite his objections that he didn’t have the capacity – and then denied his pleas to dismiss the case or release the defendant.


Ruffner has solely been taking “lawyer of the day” cases, where he only represents a defendant for their first court appearance. He said they became aware of Peterson’s situation in August through her family, though he noted they are not retained to represent her in her criminal cases.

The petition calls on the court to find and identify how many people are locked up without lawyers, alleging that a lack of available data “makes tracking and remedying unlawful liberty restrictions more difficult than it should be in an open, transparent justice system.”


The petition comes just as a judge overseeing a class-action lawsuit against the state’s indigent defense system said it’s likely “no one really knows how bad the problem is.”

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services is responsible for maintaining a list of attorneys willing to represent criminal defendants in Maine who cannot afford their own attorney. That roster has been dwindling for years and judges are struggling to find enough attorneys to take on these cases.

The latest petition echoes concerns raised in a lawsuit the ACLU of Maine filed against the commission last year alleging that the state was failing its constitutional duty to provide low-income criminal defendants with attorneys.


Superior Justice Michaela Murphy shot down a proposed settlement on Sept. 13 that would have paused the lawsuit for four years, while the two parties worked on incremental, data-driven policy changes to improve performance. She said the deal offered no emergency relief and worried about what the four-year pause would mean for criminal defendants.

McNamara said Wednesday that the failed agreement would have restricted the relief they’re seeking on Peterson’s behalf.

Attorneys for the ACLU and Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services did not respond to requests through their spokespeople to discuss the petition Wednesday and how it might affect settlement talks.


In addition to Gilbert and Linthicum, the judges who have overseen charges against Peterson, the petition names as defendants all other “unknown judges and justices of the Maine Unified Criminal Docket” in their official capacities.

Barbara Cardone, a spokesperson for the Maine judicial branch, said she didn’t have any further information or comment about the petition’s allegations.


The petition also names Aroostook County Sheriff Peter Johnson, York County Sheriff William King and “unknown jailers” as defendants. King said he wasn’t aware of the petition before a reporter contacted him Wednesday afternoon and said he needed time to review it. Johnson did not respond to a request to discuss the petition.

The Office of the Maine Attorney General typically represents state agencies in litigation but a spokesperson for the office did not respond to questions about if and how it would be involved in the case.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has no official timeline for the handling of petitions like these. No one who spoke to the Press Herald Wednesday could say what happens next. But should the court shoot down the petition and its requests for improved data seeking and the release of pretrial detainees, McNamara said they could file the same request in federal court. But he said they wanted to start in Maine first because it’s “Maine’s problem.”

“This is our failure, really an astonishing failure in 2023, to have a criminal justice system we can’t pay for,” he said.

Maine is hardly the only state struggling to provide attorneys to those who cannot afford one. McNamara and Ruffner pointed to a recent case in Oregon where a federal judge ordered the release of any detained defendant who went more than 10 days without an attorney.

The federal court ruled that “no reliable process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment is present when an indigent defendant is required to proceed against the power of the state without counsel.”

“They are unable to adequately argue for conditional release, secure witnesses, review discovery, challenge the charging instrument, intervene in the Grand Jury process, negotiate with the prosecution in an arms-length fashion, request the preservation of evidence, or challenge the length of their confinement through speedy trial statutes. For some, an uncounseled guilty plea is the only avenue out of custody,” U.S. District Judge Michael McShane wrote.

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