In 1931, Michigan Gov. Wilber M. Brucker took a budget bill passed by the Michigan legislature and tried to slash individual spending amounts without vetoing the entire bill.
Brucker sent a message to the Michigan House on June 17 announcing his actions.
The legislature, meanwhile, was on a temporary recess. It returned to the capitol June 18 for two days to finish its work before adjourning for the session. Despite the line-item vetoes, it never reconsidered the budget bill. Brucker prepared to enforce the budget as reduced by his line-item vetoes.
The circumstances sound little like those surrounding Maine Gov. Paul LePage and his attempt to veto 65 bills last month after his time to veto had passed. But the Michigan Supreme Court case surrounding the Brucker matter formed a key underpinning 84 years later for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s unanimous opinion Thursday that LePage had indeed missed his chance to veto dozens of bills he opposed and that the bills in question would become law.
The questions before the Maine court ultimately turned on whether the governor could return vetoed bills to a legislature that wasn’t present at the capitol to receive them — even if its absence was only temporary and legislative staff were ready to accept the bills.
LePage’s lawyers argued that the Maine Legislature’s two-week adjournment — through an order that didn’t specify a date of return — prevented the governor from returning vetoed bills, meaning the Constitution allowed him more time to deliver his vetoes.
LePage’s arguments relied heavily on a 1929 Supreme Court case, known as the Pocket Veto Case, in which the justices ruled that the president had no ability to return a veto to a chamber of Congress that was not in session.
“There is no substantial basis for the suggestion that, although the House in which the bill originated be not in session, the bill may nevertheless be returned … by delivering it … to an officer or agent of the House,” the justices concluded in that case.
But, as Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley wrote in Thursday’s advisory opinion, “the analysis [relying on the Pocket Veto Case] is not on all fours with the matter before us.”
That 1929 case, after all, had to do with a final, months-long adjournment of Congress. The House and Senate didn’t plan to return to Washington for months. The Maine Legislature’s adjournment was clearly temporary.
LePage’s arguments largely dismissed historical precedent surrounding vetoes in Maine and a history of more than a dozen court cases that squarely contradicted the contention that the governor couldn’t return a vetoed bill to a legislative chamber out on a temporary break.
And that’s where Brucker and the Michigan Supreme Court come in. Two Michigan state senators from Brucker’s party, Republicans Arthur E. Wood and Joe C. Foster, challenged Brucker in court and won since Michigan’s constitution didn’t allow line-item vetoes. Maine’s justices leaned heavily on this case in their opinion this week.
As part of the case, the Michigan Supreme Court had to determine whether the governor could return a bill to a chamber temporarily out of session.
“The weight of State authority seems to be that it is only the final adjournment of the legislature which prevents return of a bill on veto and that a temporary adjournment does not,” the justices concluded.
And they said exactly why the Pocket Veto Case didn’t apply to the legislature’s temporary adjournment: “because it would introduce into what was designed as a simple, practical and definitely operating provision for executive disapproval of bills, an element disturbing or destructive of such constitutional power.”
Essentially, LePage was arguing to make a straight-forward legislative process needlessly complicated and unstable — not what the Constitution’s framers had in mind.
LePage’s tone on Thursday was conciliatory and deferential to the court. His spokeswoman said the LePage administration would enforce the 65 bills in question as law.
Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau called on LePage’s administration to “reset their relationship with the Legislature to foster an environment of engagement and collaboration.”
We agree. We also think LePage should reset his relationship with the office of Attorney General Janet Mills. On July 21, LePage dismissed Mills’ opinion in the veto dispute.
“The problem with Janet is, she doesn’t give you legal opinions,” LePage told WVOM radio hosts George Hale and Ric Tyler. “She gives you Democratic opinions, and that’s just not right.”
But Mills’ reading of the law, the Constitution and historical precedent carried the day. LePage should be humbled — and deferential to all actors in government designed to keep each other’s power in check.