AUGUSTA, Maine — In a second round of written arguments in the ongoing veto dispute, Gov. Paul LePage and the presiding officers of the Maine House and Senate clashed on two fundamental questions.
First, by leaving the State House from June 30 until July 16, did lawmakers prevent the governor from returning the vetoes within the usual 10-day window?
And, is the whole issue moot anyway because the Legislature didn’t extend its legislative session until after the June 17 adjournment date set by the Maine Constitution?
Wednesday’s deadline for filing response briefs with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court marked the latest milestone in the ongoing dispute about the governor’s attempt to veto 65 bills legislative leaders say already have become law.
The conflict over the veto attempts erupted earlier this month. LePage delivered 65 vetoed bills July 16, when the Legislature returned from a two-week recess. However, House and Senate leaders rejected the vetoes as out of order, saying the governor missed his deadline to nix the initiatives and that the bills already had become law.
LePage asked the high court to weigh in on the matter, arguing that lawmakers must take up his vetoes for override votes. Initial arguments were filed with the court last week.
Legislative leaders — in a brief filed Wednesday by Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick — disputed the governor’s contention that by recessing from June 30 to July 16 lawmakers “prevented” LePage from returning vetoed bills.
They argue the order passed on June 30 that put the Legislature into recess specifically stated the purpose of the break was to give LePage time to consider the bills on his desk and, if he so chose, veto them.
“It is apparent that nothing in the Order of Adjournment prevented the governor from returning bills during the adjournment,” wrote Timothy Woodcock, the attorney represent Eves and Thibodeau.
Last week, Eves and Thibodeau also provided affidavits from the offices of the Senate secretary and clerk of the House, which showed that staff members in both offices had alerted the governor that they were empowered, ready and available to accept any vetoes while lawmakers were out of town.
In a response filed Wednesday, the governor’s legal team conceded LePage had not been physically prevented from delivering vetoes but said that was beside the point. A governor’s right to veto includes an inherent right to weigh the current political climate in the Legislature, LePage’s lawyers wrote.
“Fundamentally, the veto is a political decision,” the attorneys, led by the governor’s chief legal counsel Cynthia Montgomery, wrote. “By adjourning indefinitely and dispersing its members, the Legislature frustrates the effective exercise of the veto because it is impossible to take the political pulse of the Legislature — there is no pulse.”
The governor also reiterated his belief that the Legislature failed to properly extend the session past its June 17 statutory adjournment date. The House and Senate, by voice vote, extended the session by five legislative days on June 18.
If the Legislature were not properly convened — as LePage argues — that could mean all bills enacted after June 17 are invalid, including not only the 65 in dispute but also the biennial budget. Such a ruling would create utter political chaos.
Despite believing the Legislature screwed up, LePage argues the court should not — and cannot — invalidate laws passed after June 17 with an advisory opinion. However, he does think the day-late extension should be seen to validate his vetoes.
“The June 17 inaction is significant because it likely resulted in the bills at issue never having been enacted by the Legislature in the first place, in which case, the Governor could not enforce them,” Montgomery wrote. “If nothing else, the Legislature’s failure to follow the adjournment statute, and the reticence in acknowledging as much, is ironic given its scrutiny of the Governor’s return of the vetoes.”
Eves and Thibodeau vehemently rejected the idea that the Maine Legislature could “accidentally or unintentionally terminate itself” and pointed to the Constitutional guarantee that the Legislature is in charge of its own rules and processes.
If any lawmakers truly believed that by waiting until the day after statutory adjournment, the Legislature had lost the authority to continue business, they could have raised the question on the floor when the June 18 order to extend the session was at hand, Woodcock wrote.
“Yet, no such parliamentary questions were posed, no such procedures invoked, no such rulings requested,” he said.
Woodcock also pointed to votes to extend the session cast by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, and Minority Whip Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester.
Fredette and Espling, along with Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, also filed a response brief Wednesday. In it, they reiterated their support for LePage and their stance that Eves and Thibodeau do not speak for the entire Legislature.
The trio’s attorney, L. Clinton Boothby of Turner, also requested he be allowed to participate in Friday’s oral arguments on behalf of his clients and dozens of other Republican lawmakers in the House who signed on to a letter.
Oral arguments in the veto dispute are scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday at the Cumberland County Courthouse.
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, in a procedural order issued Wednesday afternoon, said the House Republicans’ attorney would be allowed five minutes to provide oral argument before the justices, as would Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills, who sides with Eves and Thibodeau.
The governor’s legal team and the presiding officers’ team each will be given 15 minutes for testimony. Each party will be given additional rebuttal and follow-up time.
Among the bills LePage attempted to veto was legislation that would guarantee legally present immigrants who are seeking asylum will be eligible for General Assistance, a program that gives temporary aid to poor Maine residents for existential needs, such as shelter, food and heat. Other bills include legislation to expand access to birth control and reverse the state’s jail consolidation scheme.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.