In this March 4, 2009, file photo, defense attorney and "Lawyer of the Day" Dennis Hamrick talks to his client in a Bangor courtroom. Credit: Bridget Brown / BDN

A lawsuit alleging Maine is violating the constitutional rights of low-income defendants can proceed, a judge ruled.

Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy rejected the state’s claim that the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine lacked ground and standing to bring the class-action lawsuit.

“We are thrilled to move forward with the case. Maine is not meeting its duty under the Constitution to provide low-income people accused of crimes with access to quality legal representation. We are prepared to show this in court, and hold Maine accountable to its constitutional obligations,” Zachary Heiden, chief counsel at the ACLU of Maine, said Monday.

The lawsuit alleges that the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services is violating the Sixth Amendment rights of low-income defendants in the state by failing to adequately monitor and support court-appointed attorneys.

That comes as a member of the commission warned the indigent legal services system has “gone over a cliff” amid a shortage of lawyers willing to serve low-income clients. In one review, 18 defendants in Aroostook County went more than 1,200 days combined without legal counsel.

Maine is the only state in the nation without a public defender’s office for people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

Despite allowing the lawsuit’s constitutional claim to move forward, Murphy rejected the Maine ACLU’s demand that the court compel the commission to formally issue rules governing indigent legal services, saying the statute forming the commission does not require any formal rulemaking.