Maine high court: Bills LePage tried to veto are law

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AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage erred in his end-of-session veto gambit, and in so doing lost the ability to veto 65 bills that he opposed.

In an advisory opinion released by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday, the justices said the bills in question became law without the governor’s signature, and that the Legislature should not be required to consider his attempted vetoes.

The legislative session ended much as it had progressed: marred by political dispute between lawmakers and the governor, who smashed the previous record for number of bills vetoed in a single session. LePage had pledged to veto every single bill in protest of lawmakers’ refusal to bend to his political agenda.

On July 16, the last day of the session, LePage attempted to deliver vetoes of 65 bills the Legislature had enacted before it recessed on June 30. House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat, and Senate President Michael Thibodeau, a Republican, both rejected the vetoes as out of order.

The presiding officers of the Legislature, as well as the state’s attorney general, said the bills in question had already become law without the governor’s signature because LePage missed the 10-day deadline to veto them.

LePage, however, said the lawmakers were out of town when the deadline passed, a constitutional provision allowing him to hold the bills until their return was triggered.

The governor asked the Supreme Judicial Court to weigh in, to resolve whether the bills had become laws that he must enforce, or whether the Legislature must consider his vetoes.

In making its decision, the court relied in part on decades of precedent in which Maine governors had returned vetoes to the Legislature while it was in recess.

“History demonstrates that Maine governors, for nearly forty years, have routinely returned bills with their vetoes during temporary absences of the Legislature that came at the end of the session – after an “adjournment” but before the Legislature adjourned sine die,” the court wrote.

“These examples demonstrate that temporary adjournments of the Legislature near the end of a legislative session – whether until a date certain or until the call of the leadership, and whether beyond a ten-day period – have not prevented governors from returning bills with their objections to their Houses of origin within the constitutionally-required ten-day timeframe.”

The Legislature, with the exception of LePage’s allies in the House Republican caucus, had scoffed at the governor’s legal analysis, saying their recess did not prevent LePage from returning bills. They said the temporary adjournment order was designed specifically to accommodate the governor’s possible objections, by giving him time to consider the bills before they returned to Augusta to take up whatever vetoes may have come.

In their written briefs and oral arguments before the justices, Eves and Thibodeau’s attorney also noted communications sent by the senate secretary and house clerk to the LePage administration, indicating that they were empowered and available to accept vetoes while the Legislature was away.

The governor had argued that while he had not been physically prevented from delivering documents, a governor’s right to veto includes an inherent right to weigh the current political climate in the Legislature, LePage’s lawyers wrote in a brief filed with the court..

“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.”

LePage on Thursday thanked the court for its ruling.

“This was not about winning or losing; it was about doing things right,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “We are fortunate to be able to seek legal opinions from the judicial branch, and we’re thankful the Justices came to a fast and fair resolution to this issue. We look forward to moving on and continuing to work for the Maine people.”

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Gov. Paul LePage