AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers are considering a proposal to create a civil rights unit in the Office of the Maine Attorney General to investigate and respond to possible civil rights violations and educate the public on civil rights issues.

The attorney general’s office already enforces the Maine Civil Rights Act but the work is split up among attorneys and staff who do the work in addition to other duties, Attorney General Aaron Frey told lawmakers during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, is the sponsor of L.D. 2210, which would establish a new civil rights unit in the AG’s office and set up a panel to examine any complaints received and if the parties involved followed best practices.

She said that while the AG’s current approach to investigating civil rights complaints has been sufficient in the past, a rise in hate crimes points to a need to create a dedicated unit. “I believe that our civil rights response, remedy and education should be afforded a place in the structure of our state government,” Talbot Ross said.

The committee heard testimony from four supporters of the bill, including Frey, and one person who said a dedicated unit is unnecessary. Co-sponsors of the bill are all Democrats and one Republican on the committee said she would need more information before taking a position. The bill will go to a work session at a later date before a committee vote.

“I want to see more specifics,” said Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan, ranking member on the committee. “We asked a lot of questions today and will need to get that information to look at in a work session.”


The Maine Civil Rights Act has been in place since 1989 and prohibits intentionally interfering with another person’s right to engage in lawful activity through the use of violence, threat of violence or property damage when the conduct is motivated by bias based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation.

Lawmakers Wednesday also discussed adding age to the categories protected by the law.

The AG’s office has the authority to bring civil action for an injunction or other relief in response to a violation. It also runs the Civil Rights Team Project in Maine schools to provide education about the Civil Rights Act and civil rights issues.

Frey told committee members the office has three attorneys, and one investigator and gets occasional help from administrative staff and law enforcement to complete investigations. The office received 90 civil rights complaints last year, Frey said. Not all resulted in action, but all required some level of review.

“The office does this even though no specific resource has been provided for enforcement of the Maine Civil Rights Act,” Frey said. “While I can confidently say that the lack of dedicated staff has not hindered our ability to prioritize this work, the creation of a properly resourced civil rights unit would elevate this important work, allow for better engagement and education for the  public, raise the visibility of the office as a resource and signal the state’s continued commitment to protecting the civil rights of all Mainers.”

The bill would establish a civil rights unit to receive, investigate and take action in response to complaints, coordinate with other entities and people dedicated to advancing civil rights, and engage in public education and outreach. It would also establish a panel to review complaints, determine whether best practices were followed by the parties involved and that could recommend policy changes.


Frey estimated it would cost about $220,000 or $230,000 to hire an attorney solely focused on civil rights along with a paralegal or other support staff.

“This is to designate a civil rights unit, really so the public has a known place to get information and if they think there’s been an alleged violation there is a place for that (investigation) to occur,” Talbot Ross said. “We’re building the pieces so there is no barrier between any Mainer and their ability to raise a flag if they believe there’s been a violation of their civil rights.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and an economic policy analyst for the Maine Center for Economic Policy testified in support of the bill. The committee has also received a small amount of written testimony, mostly in favor of the bill.

“MECEP supports L.D. 2210 because ensuring that Maine is a welcoming place that feels safe for everyone is not just a moral imperative, but an economic advantage,” said policy analyst James Myall.

Gil Tierney of Augusta testified against the bill. Tierney said he has never had a problem with his civil rights being violated and asked several questions about who decides what is investigated, what the timeframe is for complaints to be filed, and how many people file civil rights complaints.

“What I see in this bill is a whole bunch of top-tier highly paid professionals spending a great deal of time and creating new rules and developing reports that they think and talk a lot about among themselves for no or little actionable purpose,” he said.

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