Judge rules Maine Municipal Association allowed to participate in political campaigns

Posted Feb. 14, 2013, at 8:08 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 14, 2013, at 9:19 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A U.S. District Court judge Thursday ruled in favor of the Maine Municipal Association, saying the lobbying organization that represents Maine’s towns and cities was allowed under the law to take sides and participate in five political campaigns between 2004 and 2009.

The ruling by Judge John Woodcock stems from a 2010 lawsuit the right-leaning Maine Heritage Policy Center filed against the MMA in Kennebec County Superior Court, alleging the organization violated constitutional prohibitions on government entities participating in and contributing to political campaigns. By doing so, the center argued, the organization was violating others’ free speech rights.

In his 56-page decision, Woodcock said the MMA’s participation in the political campaigns was allowed under the “government speech doctrine” and noted that the Maine Heritage Policy Center has a number of other avenues to pursue its advocacy against MMA and its political agenda, including in state court and through political activity.

“For the past two years, we have endured as Heritage Policy Center used words like ‘scandalous’ and ‘illegal’ in regard to our information and advocacy, legitimate activities that we have been engaged with in Maine since 1936,” Christopher Lockwood, MMA’s executive director, said in a prepared statement. “We are grateful that Judge Woodcock today put all the claims of free speech violations firmly to rest.”

The think tank, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of three plaintiffs, argued the Maine Municipal Association is a government entity, and cited the group’s participation in five statewide ballot measure campaigns, including two unsuccessful Taxpayer Bill of Rights measures supported by the Maine Heritage Policy Center that would have restricted growth of government spending to the rate of inflation without express voter approval.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center cited a state statute that designates the Maine Municipal Association as an “instrumentality” of the municipal members it represents and mandates that the association’s assets be delivered to the state treasurer “upon its dissolution.”

The Maine Municipal Association initially rejected the center’s characterization that it’s a government entity. In a news release issued Thursday celebrating Woodcock’s decision, the association acknowledges it is “an instrumentality of government.”

David Crocker, who directs the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s center for constitutional government, said Woodcock’s decision was “narrow,” applying only to the free speech questions raised by the center.

“The judge did a lot to bolster my case when we get back to state court. He pretty much said the MMA is an arm of the government,” Crocker said. “I wouldn’t be popping the champagne corks, not by a long shot.”

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