A legislative committee voted Wednesday to sue the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in a bid to get access to child protective records.

The Government Oversight Committee has spent months trying to get the records related to the deaths of four children who died in the summer of 2021. All of the children were 4 years old or younger and allegedly died at the hands of one of their parents.

The committee, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, issued a subpoena for the records last month. The legislators argue that they should see the case files as part of their investigation into what they believe could be systemic failures at the state level that led to the deaths.

But DHHS has said the Attorney General’s Office has advised them that they could not release confidential records to the legislators. Instead, they have given them to staffers at the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

“We look forward to OPEGA’s review and the Court’s resolution of this issue so we can advance our vital work to protect Maine children,” DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said in a statement.

The 8-1 vote by the committee on Wednesday to follow the subpoena with a lawsuit sets up a court battle between two branches of government — the legislative versus the executive.

Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) said the interpretation by the AG’s office that lawmakers can’t see certain records is an attempt by the executive branch to choose what the Legislature can address.

“It’s stunning and it’s bizarre that they would take this position and it’s completely wrongheaded,” Bennett said. “This is a separation of powers issue.”

Assistant Attorney General Christopher Taub, who represents the legislators on the committee, said the issue is an interpretation over language in state law regarding the powers of legislative officials. At issue is whether lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee are “appropriate legislative officials with responsibility for child protection services.”

The lone vote in opposition to filing the lawsuit, Sen. Nate Libby (D-Lewiston), said he believes lawmakers should amend state law when they return to session in January to resolve the dispute.

“That to me is the cleanest, most straightforward way to get access to those files,” he said.

The files lawmakers are seeking include one on Maddox Williams, 3, whose mother Jessica Trefethen, 36, was found guilty Tuesday of depraved indifference murder. The other files relate to the deaths of Jayden Harding, 6-weeks-old; Hailey Goding, 3, and Sylus Melvin, 1-month-old.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake (R-Turner) said he knows the criminal justice system will work to punish those responsible. But the reason he wants to see the files is to get a sense of the inner workings at DHHS, including who made custody decisions for the children in those cases.

“How that system failed that we let children go back to people that should never have been allowed to,” he said.