AUGUSTA, Maine — A judge ruled Wednesday that Gov. Paul LePage doesn’t have the authority to shutter a minimum-security prison without obtaining legislative approval.

Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy on Wednesday granted a temporary injunction sought by Maine’s attorney general, unions and the Washington County Commission. Murphy concluded that only lawmakers, not the Maine Department of Corrections, have the authority to close the Downeast Correctional Facility.

Murphy ordered the Maine Department of Corrections to operate the facility according to the law “until the Legislature either acts to repeal [the law establishing the facility] or ceases to fund Downeast Correctional Facility.”

The lawsuit sought to force the state to restore prison operations to levels that existed the day before its sudden closure, but Murphy stopped short of ordering that because “the details of everyday operation of DCF have been statutorily delegated to the commissioner by the Legislature. … The court therefore defers to the commissioner as to the operation of the facility and declines to issue any order regarding implementation and selection of programs, levels of staffing and payment of personnel.”

Questions to the governor’s office from the Bangor Daily News were not immediately answered.

Title 34-A of Maine statutes establishes the facility in Washington County “for the confinement and rehabilitation of persons who have been duly sentenced and committed to the Department of Corrections.”

The governor’s administration removed inmates from the facility and issued layoff notices to staff on Feb. 9 even though the facility was funded by lawmakers through this summer amid an ongoing attempt to extend funding.

[LePage rushes to close controversial Down East prison]

On Feb. 14, the parties to the suit agreed that the executive branch would stop dismantling the prison and removing equipment until the pending legal case and deliberations over the matter in the Legislature were complete.

A day later, a proposal to allocate $5.5 million to keep the prison open for another year initially passed in the House of Representatives. But on Thursday, it failed to win the the two-thirds majority needed in the House to thwart a LePage veto or enact the bill as an emergency measure. The bill faces further action in the Senate.

In late February, LePage supported another related bill sponsored by Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, which would establish a prison pre-release center in Washington County with money from a 2016 bond, which is also paying for a major expansion at the Maine Correctional Facility in Windham.

LePage proposed repealing all references to the Downeast Correctional Facility from Maine law and allowing the executive branch to sell the Machiasport property. The bill is not yet written and under development in the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

The proposal received a chilly reception from lawmakers who said LePage’s proposal, which would have a maximum of 20 beds for low-risk inmates in work-release programs, is much too small in scale, even compared with the now-shuttered work-release program at the prison.

Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, one of the lawmakers who has spearheaded the effort to maintain the prison, said Thursday that the court decision was great news for Washington County, though she was unsure what will happen next.

“I guess the next step is the governor,” Maker said. “This makes what everyone’s been doing now for two years worthwhile. We were right in trying to fight this.”

Frank Moroney, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, which represents most of the prison’s laid-off workers, said in a written statement that LePage “now knows that he represents just one of the three branches of government.”

LePage contends the prison is too costly and inefficient to continue operating. The prison costs about $5 million a year to operate and provides jobs and prison labor to the surrounding community.

The Associated Press and BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.