AUGUSTA, Maine — William J. Schneider is a former Green Beret and Army Ranger embarking on his latest assignment: prosecuting criminals. The new state attorney general is armed with a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution.
“I’ve carried the Constitution for 20 years,” Schneider said in an interview after just a few days on the job. He said he refers to the document often, even in informal gatherings when someone poses a boggling legal issue. “I’m able to go right to the Constitution.”
The GOP-controlled Legislature elected Schneider to a two-year term. He’s the first Republican in three decades to head the agency that represents Maine in legal actions and prosecutes major crimes, takes his new role with strong constitutional convictions.
The West Point graduate and honored rifle team member is taking legal aim at the national health care law. Schneider, a former assistant U.S attorney and assistant state attorney general, says the law Congress enacted last year is constitutionally flawed in two areas: it mandates that citizens buy health insurance and it essentially forces states to expand Medicaid coverage to more people, which critics say puts further strain on state budgets.
Schneider said he plans to direct Maine to join other states legally challenging the law.
“I realize that the health care system is in a crisis right now, and I want to see it fixed as much as anybody,” he said. “But I don’t want to see the fix based on an unconstitutional foundation. And so, I truly believe that the Congress doesn’t have the power under the Constitution to require everybody to buy insurance.”
Schneider said Congress crafted a new standard for people eligible for Medicaid coverage, “and it’s different from the standard set in Maine right now. So it would require the state to either decide to go along with the new standard, and pay a lot more money from state coffers, or not do Medicaid at all. ”
Schneider – a native of the Buffalo, N.Y., area who came to Maine, he jokes, for its mild winters – is well-respected by both political parties, with some qualification.
House Democratic Leader Rep. Emily Cain of Orono said Schneider brings “tremendous experience and knowledge” to his new role.
“We are encouraged by Attorney General Schneider’s history of thoughtful work as an assistant U.S. attorney and hope he will apply the same thoughtful approach to the heavy responsibilities of his office,” Cain said. But she added that Schneider “can demonstrate that commitment” by not going forward with a legal challenge of the health care law.
After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 1981, Schneider earned Special Forces and Army Ranger tabs among other distinctions. He declined to give specifics when asked to detail his missions. While driving to an airport during his service time, he got into an accident and broke his back. He lost the use of hi s legs and now uses a wheelchair.
Following retirement from the military, Schneider went to work for a company that provides physical security systems for military sites. But he was drawn to law, saying it offered more options.
He graduated from the University of Maine School of Law with honors in 1993, then went to work in the department he heads now, as assistant attorney general and Drug Task Force prosecutor. Drug abuse – particularly prescription drug abuse – remains a top concern of Schneider’s. He calls it “a corrosive kind of thing.”
“It causes property crime, it contributes to domestic violence, it contributes to abuse of the elderly and people in nursing homes and hospitals. And it’s very specific to rural states. Maine is the only state in New England that has a real pronounced problem with prescription drug abuse,” Schneider said.
He wants to meet with pharmacists, doctors – everybody with a stake in the issue – and figure out the next step toward easing the problem.
Schneider entered politics in 1998 and won a Maine House of Representatives seat. He served as assistant GOP floor leader during his second term.
He entered federal service after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Schneider joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office as anti-terrorism coordinator, a role that had dual parts. One required him to work with the FBI and track down terrorism leads to see if they had any substance. The other allowed him to work with different levels of government to develop anti-terror strategy.
Schneider is a husband and father of a teenage daughter. He raises alpacas in Durham, his hometown.