On Thursday, The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine unanimously ruled against Governor Paul R. LePage in his veto dispute with the state legislature.
The disagreement centered around the governor’s veto power and how long the governor could wait before returning vetoed bills to the legislature. Typically, the governor has ten days to veto bills and return them. If the legislature adjourns and signals the end of the second legislative session before those ten days are up, the governor may exercise a pocket veto.
LePage’s administration had claimed that the legislature’s temporary adjournment on June 30 triggered a provision in the Maine Constitution which allowed the governor to hold onto bills until the legislature reconvened for three consecutive days. The governor’s basic argument was that the legislature’s adjournment, with no set date to return, prevented him from returning vetoed bills to the legislature. Therefore, he could hold onto the vetoed bills longer than the typical ten day period.
The governor acted on this position, refusing to return the bills during the traditional ten day period, only sending them to the legislature after is had reconvened. Democrat Speaker of the House Mark Eves and Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau refused to take up the vetoes, however, ruling them out of order.
With his constitutional interpretation rejected by the Maine legislature, LePage asked the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine to answer the question of whether his vetoes stood, or if the bills had become law.
In a unanimous advisory opinion, the six justices of Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court claimed that the bills were indeed law. According to the court, the legislature’s adjournment did not prevent the governor from returning vetoed bills within the typical ten day window.
In a plain text reading of the Constitution, the court found that “the constitutional provision at issue is ambiguous. The phrase “by their adjournment prevent its return” has not been clarified within the Maine Constitution or by our past opinions.”
Unable to definitively parse the language of the text, the court relied heavily on precedent and tradition in interpreting the constitution. In it’s opinion, the justices found that the governors over the past forty years, including LePage, have not been prevented from returning vetoes by temporary adjournments similar to the one in question.
“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,” wrote the court.
In a press release, the governor restated that the legal battle was necessary to clarify the Constitution’s meaning.
“This was not about winning or losing; it was about doing things right,” said the governor. “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.”
Several bills that the governor opposes, including one that provides welfare for asylum seekers, are now law.
The court’s advisory opinion can be found here.