AUGUSTA — Maine will create two new public defender offices to serve three counties where people accused of crimes are having trouble securing the legal representation guaranteed by Maine’s constitution.

The measure passed unanimously in both chambers and Gov. Janet Mills signed it into law Thursday afternoon.

The state is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine for failing to provide legal counsel for people who cannot afford a private attorney.

Advocates have been calling on the state to move toward a public defender system like those in other states, rather than relying on a roster of volunteer private attorneys maintained by the state Commission of Indigent Legal Services.

The law – the result of bipartisan negotiations in the Judiciary Committee – establishes 22 new positions for public defender offices serving Aroostook, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. It also is similar to what Mills proposed as part of her budget.

“The right to counsel is one that I deeply value and have personally delivered myself, having represented low-income clients many times during my own legal career,” Mills said in a prepared statement after signing the law. “I thank the Legislature for passing this bill, which is consistent with my budget proposal, in such a timely manner.”


Lawmakers and Mills created the state’s first public defender’s office in Kennebec County last year, ending Maine’s status as the only state in the nation without such an office.

Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, said they have heard “nothing but glowing feedback” from people seeking legal services. Moonen said the bill will allow similar offices to open in counties that have the highest need for legal services.

“This is really, really critical that we get this done and that we get these folks attorneys, not only so they can be represented, but so that those who are victims can also get justice,” Moonen said. “This is an extraordinary step we should all be proud of. We have a lot more to do but this is a great start.”

The bill, L.D. 653, also changes the name of MCLIS to the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, the bill’s sponsor, said the name change is a big step. “Generally, people understand what public defense is, so I’m very pleased there is a name change,” Keim said. “We don’t even have to use an acronym … and the people of Maine will know what their money is going to. That’s why I thought it was so important to change the name.”

She said the additional positions are also much needed. “This has been building for years to this point and it’s the culmination of so many hours of conversations about what to do,” Keim said.


The expansion does not require additional funding in the current two-year budget, Moonen said, so the bill will head straight to the governor without waiting for funding approval. A fiscal note attached to the bill indicates that it will cost about $95,530 in fiscal 2026 and $192,500 in fiscal 2027.

The ACLU first sued the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, a quasi-state agency tasked with finding and overseeing court-appointed lawyers, two years ago.

The ACLU and the commission have tried at least twice to settle the lawsuit, only to have those proposed agreements rejected by a judge, who recently ordered the parties to prepare for a June trial. Attorney General Aaron Frey and Gov. Janet Mills were added to a new complaint the ACLU filed on March 8.

Lawmakers have taken steps to increase the roster of attorneys, including increasing the reimbursement rates. But the crisis has continued to worsen. Hundreds of Mainers who are constitutionally entitled to a lawyer don’t have one and are waiting weeks, even months, to have a judge appoint one.

Staff writers Rachel Ohm and Emily Allen contributed to this story. 

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