A Breakdown of the Veto Dispute

July 24, 2015 Posted by Michael Martin - No Comments

Over the past few weeks, there has been significant discussion in the Maine political discourse on whether or not sixty-five bills were vetoed by the Governor or have become law.

However, much of this discussion has consisted of personal attacks and false information, and has failed to focus on the legal arguments being made by the Governor, the Maine Legislature, and other political figures.

So what is this veto dispute really about?

Background on Vetoing Legislation

According to clear language in the Maine Constitution, the Governor is allotted ten days to veto legislation while the legislature is in session.

However, if the legislature’s “adjournment” prevents the Governor from returning his vetoes, he may then veto legislation “within 3 days after the next meeting of the same Legislature which enacted the bill or resolution.”

Although this language is somewhat ambiguous, it has been examined by numerous Maine Judicial Supreme Court cases. The general consensus of these cases is that in this type of a situation, the Governor is allowed an additional three days following the next three-day reconvening of the Legislature to submit vetoes.

But unfortunately, it has yet to be legally and fully determined whether or not there is a specific type of adjournment which prevents bills from being returned to the legislature.

Therefore, confusion over the term “adjournment” has caused this entire dispute, with both sides in this debate adopting a different definition.

LePage’s Argument

The Governor is taking a textual approach to his interpretation of the Maine Constitution, and essentially arguing that “adjournment” simply means any type of adjournment.

He is contending that on June 30th, when the legislature passed the Joint Order to adjourn “Until the Call of the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House,” and did not meet for more than ten days, the legislature adjourned, and he was prevented from returning his vetoes.

This then triggered the three-day provision, and allowed him to hold onto the sixty-five bills that had been presented to him, rather than attempt to return them to the legislature.

The Governor also points out that Governor Brennan similarly invoked this three-day exception rule in 1981, and Governor Baldacci also used the rule in 2005, without any contention by the respective Legislature whom accepted and acted on vetoes accordingly.

It’s important to note that contrary to reports hastily published in state newspapers, the Governor was not, in fact, engaging in a pocket veto, or simply misreading the Constitution.  He claims he was, rather, acting on the basis of his own genuine understanding of Article IV, Part Third, Section Two of the Maine Constitution.

Janet Mills’ Argument

Mills and the legislature are arguing that the Governor is only prevented from returning vetoes if the legislature has adjourned sin die, which signals the end of a legislative session. They claim that on June 30th the Legislature did not adjourned sin die, but only tentatively until the call of the President and Speaker, and had planned on returning July 16th for a final reconsideration of any vetoes or further Legislative business.

Although this argument holds merit, it invites an obvious criticism, which is that the Maine Constitution does not explicitly require an adjournment sin die in order for the exemption to the ten-day rule to apply. Given the fact that elsewhere in the Constitution there includes specification of adjournment sin die regarding an unrelated provision, this would seem to be an intentional move by the writers of the Maine Constitution to include any type of adjournment in this process.

But Mills contends that because of the intent of the Legislature to reconvene on July 16th, the Legislature’s adjournment could not possibly be the same envisioned in the pertinent Constitutional provision.

Finally, Mills and her like-minded counterparts cite examples of LePage, and other Governors, returning vetoed bills to the clerks of both Legislative houses, despite its adjournment, as evidence of the LePage administration’s misunderstanding of the three-day exception provision.

Although it is true that LePage and past Governors have not always followed the three-day rule, as pointed out by LePage, several Governors have reversely obeyed the three-day provision.

Therefore, this inconsistency does not reflect poorly on the Governor’s understanding of the constitution, but instead rather effectively demonstrates the inconsistencies and ambiguity within the Maine Constitution, and within Maine’s political history. There are a plethora of examples of Legislative, and Executive actions that hold consistent with accepted practice and precedent, however hold inconsistent with the state’s Constitution.

Simply put, even if LePage did act in different manners on different occasions, so did preceding Governors, meaning this is an extremely convoluted subject where both sides have seemingly worthy arguments.

It is therefore impossible to predict which way the Maine Judicial Supreme Court will rule, but hopefully, it will shed some light on the true meaning of “adjournment” in the Maine constitution.