PORTLAND, Maine — Whether a lawsuit will continue between two of Maine’s leading politicians and most bitter rivals is in a federal judge’s hands following arguments around dismissal of the case Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court.
Arguments in the lawsuit by Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves against Republican Gov. Paul LePage have been coming for months, since Eves sued LePage in July 2015.
At the core of the lawsuit is whether LePage violated state law or Eves’ rights when he forced Good Will-Hinckley to rescind an employment contract by threatening to end $530,000 a year in state funding for the organization.
Judge George Singal said after the brief arguments concluded that he would rule on LePage’s motion to dismiss the case “in the very near future.”
Patrick Strawbridge, who represents LePage in the case, argued that the governor has “absolute immunity” for any actions he takes that are part of the legislative process. Absolute immunity protects government officials from criminal prosecution and lawsuits when they are acting within the scope of their official duties.
Buffering that argument, according to Strawbridge, is the fact that funding that was at issue for Good Will-Hinckley — which was in an account over which LePage had discretion — was part of a budget bill that at the time of LePage’s threats had not yet been enacted.
“When you start suggesting that a federal court can stand here and litigate what can and can’t be said and what money can and can’t be spent, I think we’ve gone over a line,” said Strawbridge.
But David Webbert, who represents Eves, argued that the Department of Education was already processing its first payment to Good Will-Hinckley, which means pulling it back because of LePage’s displeasure with Eves falls outside the scope of normal legislative business.
Webbert argued that LePage’s actions against Eves were part of an extended pattern of LePage’s “war on Democrats” that included continued verbal attacks and a vow to veto every bill they put across his desk.
“What better way to say that than to get the leader of the Democrats fired from the job he needed to support his family?” said Webbert. “The defendant was smart enough not to say [Eves] should be fired because he was a Democrat, but he came awfully close.”