AUGUSTA, Maine — A husky’s life is on the line in what may be Maine’s most unusual court case, and one of the only things that can save it is Gov. Paul LePage and a creative interpretation of executive power.
The Republican governor found a new way to test his authority in March, when he issued a “ full and free pardon” to a dog named Dakota, who was ordered to die by a judge after killing a neighbor’s dog last year in Winslow, then attacking that same family’s new dog in February.
A judge upheld that order earlier this month, but Dakota’s owner has a new legal team asking the judge to reconsider, using LePage’s power on property forfeiture as a legal backstop. But the district attorney has dismissed the governor’s action.
The way the “pardon” was delivered has led to uncertainty, but LePage’s authority is central to the defense’s case. It’s just another example of the governor testing his power, but this one’s certainly novel.
Confusion has ensued after LePage’s pardon, partly because he bypassed normal procedure to issue it. That’s not just because the subject is a dog.
Gubernatorial pardons normally come after hearings on petitions submitted to a clemency board by people whose livelihoods are affected by old convictions. The purely advisory board hears those cases and gives confidential recommendations to the governor, who has the final say.
The Maine Constitution gives the governor wide authority to remit “all forfeitures and penalties” after convictions and to “grant reprieves, commutations and pardons.”
But LePage didn’t go through his board in this case. Instead, he intervened by attaching an official-looking pardon document to a news release on the dog’s case after it was brought to his attention by someone at the Waterville humane society.
District Court Judge Valerie Stanfill, however, upheld her initial order that Dakota be killed, citing the section of state law mandating euthanization when dogs deemed dangerous attack again. At the hearing, Stanfill said she wasn’t considering the pardon, although it wasn’t clear if she merely hadn’t seen it or if she thought it was invalid.
There was some debate about whether the pardon was serious since the first line of the news release from LePage’s office referenced ceremonial Thanksgiving turkey pardons by the president and said it was “to shed light on the case.” But LePage spokesman Peter Steele last week called it an “official pardon.”
Mary Ann Lynch, a spokeswoman for Maine’s judicial system, declined to comment on specifics of the case. But she said the court system normally doesn’t have to handle most gubernatorial pardons because they affect prior convictions.
Still, the pardon is central to the case presented by Dakota’s lawyers and its validity is a point of contention with the district attorney.
Stanfill’s latest order has been appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, but the new lawyers for Matthew Perry, who owned Dakota at the time of the attacks, filed an order last week asking the high court to delay the appeal and send the case back to Stanfill for fact-finding.
Those lawyers, Eliot-based David Bobrow and Augusta-based Darrick Banda, argue that Perry didn’t own Dakota when Stanfill originally ordered the dog’s execution in March, so it’s invalid. In a separate line of reasoning, they also argue that killing Dakota would be a property forfeiture, which LePage could reverse.
The office of Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney has argued in court documents that LePage has no authority to pardon Dakota because there has been no conviction, he didn’t follow proper procedure in issuing it because Maine law requires public notice and a pardon requires a hearing.
“It’s symbolic and obviously the symbolism itself is very effective at garnering attention,” Maloney said.
Banda, a Republican who lost the 2012 district attorney race to Maloney, a Democrat, that the district attorney has “disrespected” the governor with her argument and said Stanfill should have allowed time to gather facts on it before ruling after the pardon.
“Whatever label you want to put on what the governor did — whether you want to label it a pardon, whether you want to label it the remittance of property,” Banda said, “he has the authority to see that this sentence does not get put into execution.”
LePage routinely tests his office’s power. But this time, it’s not political.
The governor hasn’t been shy about wielding his executive power, whether on a record-setting number of vetoes or his 2015 threat to withhold funding that prompted a nonprofit to rescind a job offer to former Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.
He has been tested in court with mixed results. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that LePage missed his chance to veto 65 bills in 2015. The next year, a federal judge dismissed Eves’ lawsuit against the governor.
Here, LePage is trying to save a dog, not punish political enemies. The Legislature has no role in the pardon process, and he has not affixed partisan blame to anyone in Dakota’s case. But this intervention started with an anecdote, and it is now sending government into contortions.
That’s not so different than past events in LePage world. If Dakota is saved, it will increase the power of future governors.