AUGUSTA, Maine — Several lawmakers have joined a group of Maine residents in suing Maine’s top elected officials over unusual parliamentary maneuvers the State Legislature and the Governor’s Office executed in order to secure passage of a partisan two-year spending bill.
The suit, which was prompted by the nonprofit organization Respect Maine, challenges the constitutionality of the Special Session convened by Gov. Janet Mills, arguing it lacked an “Extraordinary Occasion” as required by the Maine State Constitution.
The suit also names Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland).
“The Legislature adjourns Sine Die every year and bills die because of it. There is nothing extraordinary about it at all,” said Rep. John Andrews (R-Paris), one of the lawmakers who has joined the suit.
Andrews said the Maine Constitution only allows for a Special Session in cases of pandemics, natural disasters, or other extraordinary events.
Also joining the suit are Rep. Shelley Rudnicki (R-Fairfield) and Rep. Randall Greenwood (R-Wales).
Respect Maine Board Member Michelle Tucker expressed her concerns, stating, “This lawsuit matters because, when our legislative and executive branches start to routinely circumvent the rules they write and are supposed to enforce, it becomes the people’s duty to hold them accountable.”
The lawsuit alleges that the presiding officers of the 131st Maine State Legislature colluded with Mills to pass a partisan budget bill earlier than necessary in March, expecting that the governor would call the Legislature back into a special session—unconstitutionally overriding the Legislature’s official decision to adjourn the regular session months ahead of the statutory deadline.
Under Maine’s Constitution, bills passed with a simple majority only take effect 90 days after the conclusion of the legislative session in which they were passed. Because Mills, Jackson, and Ross wanted to pass the spending bill with a simple majority and no Republican votes, they needed to end the session prematurely in order to start the 90-day countdown. Without resorting to such a parliamentary trick, they risked leaving a funding gap that could have led to a limited government shutdown.
Mills’ proclamation that the Legislature reconvene for “extraordinary” business, including confirming her nominees for judicial appointments and addressing other unspecified matters, undermines the authority of the Legislature, the plaintiffs claim.
On several occasions, while acting as Maine’s Attorney General, Mills authored opinions that would appear to support the plaintiffs’ position in this case.
As Maine’s Attorney General in 2015, for example, Mills wrote that the Legislature alone determines when its session is over, and any attempt by another branch of government to reinterpret that decision “might well violate . . . the Maine Constitution.”
While the suit challenges the constitutionality of Mills “Extraordinary Occasion” order reconvening the legislature, it also challenges the constitutionality of Jackson and Ross’ actions.
“Regardless of the constitutionality of Defendant Mills’ Proclamation, the actions of Defendants Talbot Ross and Jackson are unconstitutional unto themselves by ceding legislative power to the executive contrary to the Maine Constitution,” the complaint states.
According to the plaintiffs, laws passed during an unconstitutional session of the legislature “inherit that unconstitutionality, rendering those laws void ab initio [from the beginning].”
The plaintiffs, represented by Carl E. Woock, Esq., and Stephen C. Smith, Esq., of Steve Smith Trial Lawyers in Augusta, are seeking to hold Mills and the presiding officers accountable for what they allege are unconstitutional actions.
A press conference is scheduled for Wednesday, May 3 at 9:00 AM in the Visitor’s Center of the State House to discuss the lawsuit further.
(Disclosure: Steve Smith Trial Lawyers are advertisers with the Maine Wire and represent the Maine Wire in legal matters related to Freedom of Access Act requests for public records.)