What the Maine Supreme Court’s recent ruling means for Mainers’ right to food

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In 2021, Maine voters approved a constitutional amendment that ensured Mainers the right to “food of their own choosing.” This right includes consuming, growing and harvesting food and has been interpreted to include hunting. Maine’s courts have affirmed that our Constitution now guarantees a right to hunt, but specific provisions have been interpreted to limit this right in an absurd way.

In the 2024 case of Virginia Parker v. Dept of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Maine Supreme Court ruled that a law banning hunting on Sundays trumped this new Constitutional Amendment. Even more controversial was the court’s reasoning, stating that hunting on Sunday is illegal, which they felt fell under the Amendment’s “poaching” exception. The Court was utterly wrong in this interpretation, as they have now strangely limited the constitutional right to hunt to the constitutional right to hunt when it is legal, which may as well not exist.

Before addressing what this ruling and amendment do, we should first discuss what a state constitution is. We often discuss the United States Constitution, which both enshrines individual rights and grants the United States government powers over things like commerce and taxation. State constitutions operate in almost the opposite direction, as states possess a general “plenary power.” Instead of granting powers to Maine, our constitution functions more like the United States Bill of Rights, limiting the state’s preexisting powers.

So, a guarantee of rights in the Maine Constitution does not empower the government to act, because our state constitution is solely a limitation of power rather than a grant of power. Therefore, this Amendment does not grant Maine any extra power to protect our right to food, as our state already had the power to do that by passing laws. This Constitutional Amendment protects us from state obstruction of our right to food, which makes this Maine Court ruling even more frustrating.

When the Maine Supreme Court ruled on Parker v. Fisheries and Wildlife, the court interpreted the right to food to cover hunting, but not illegal hunting. This is because the Amendment text excluded “poaching,” a term with various definitions, but the court applied one defining poaching as any unlawful hunting. So, this Constitutional Amendment, which mainly restricts state action, only stops the state from infringing on the right to hunt in a way the state has already deemed legal.

The right to legally hunt is an absurd right to codify because if Maine wanted to restrict hunting, it could just make a certain kind of hunting illegal, and the court’s interpretation of this right would be unable to stop it. The amendment only comes into play if Maine somehow infringes on the right to hunt legally, if, for example, they made it too legally cumbersome to hunt while not outright banning it. Constitutional rights in state constitutions exist to limit states’ power, but by interpreting the right to hunt in this way, the court has severely weakened its ability to restrict the state.

Regardless of whether this interpretation of the right to hunt is ever actually used again, the limitation of this constitutional right to no longer include hunting the state deems “illegal” turns this entire Amendment into a joke. Maine’s Constitution exists to protect Mainers from government overreach, and interpreting the right to hunt in this way seriously undermines the state Constitution’s ability to do so. 

What makes this worse is that the law Maine’s Supreme Court was protecting, which first banned hunting on “the Lord’s Day” in 1883, is outdated, religiously discriminatory, and doesn’t belong in a modern western democracy. So, if interests of Mainers, the constitution, and democracy are all against this law, how can the state’s highest court be for it?