Senate rejects bill giving courts more say in challenges of regulatory rulings

Posted April 02, 2012, at 6:04 p.m.
Debra Plowman
Debra Plowman

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that seeks to give courts more authority to scrutinize certain regulatory rulings by state agencies could be headed for a quiet death.

LD 1546, sponsored by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, was voted down 18-16 on Monday without debate by the Senate.

It now faces a vote in the House where its fate is uncertain. Either way, it still would go back to the Senate for final disposition.

The bill addresses departmental rulings on things such as permits and enforcement of insurance laws. For instance, if the Maine Department of Environmental Protection denies an applicant a building permit and that decision is appealed, the state courts in most cases defer to the DEP’s determination of what’s required.

LD 1546 would require judges to review the appeal without that level of deference.

Supporters of the bill, including the governor’s office, said it gives anyone challenging agency rules more of a fair chance and helps guard against institutional bias.

During initial debate on the bill late last week, Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, said current law instructs courts to give “great deference” to agencies on regulatory rulings. The theory is that those agencies know their rules best, but some feel it gives them too much power.

“As we know, agencies develop agendas over time,” Hastings said.

Opponents are concerned the bill dramatically would slow down the appeal process. They fear it could lead to more lawsuits that would halt important economic development projects.

Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said last week that he didn’t understand the need for the bill. In nearly all cases, he said, agencies that issue land-use permits approve about 98 percent of the applications.

“We’re trying to be less regulatory burdensome,” he said.

An analysis by the attorney general’s office earlier this year showed that Maine is one of 15 states with laws that give agencies strong deference.

Before the Judiciary Committee vote, the state’s attorney general expressed concerns about the bill because it might lead to inconsistent interpretation of regulations due to judges reviewing appeals on a case-by-case basis.

There also were questions raised about whether the bill would jeopardize the separation of powers outlined in the state constitution.

Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.

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