PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday unanimously upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit concerning the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s campaign activities in opposition to a question about bear baiting on the November 2014 ballot.
The department spent at least $31,000 in public money to help defeat the referendum, according to previously published reports. That prompted a lawsuit before Election Day filed by Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, which had proposed banning bear baiting, hounding and trapping.
Voters rejected the citizen-initiated question 54 percent to 46 percent.
In March 2015, Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler dismissed the lawsuit, saying it was moot because the election had been decided. She also declared the department’s campaign activities were legal because restricting speech on a contested issue was not in the public’s interest.
Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting appealed, asking the state supreme court to offer guidance on how government can use public funds to advocate in an election.
The court, which heard oral arguments in February, refused.
“The core question at issue in this case is not a generic question; rather the question presented is the specific agency’s authority in the context of the facts at issue. Each state agency’s authority turns on its individual enabling statute,” Chief Justice Leigh Saufley wrote in the seven-page opinion. “Although the question may recur, the extent of an agency’s statutory authority, the actions taken by the agency, and the context of those actions will vary and are not predictable. An interpretation of the department’s enabling statute in the context of this now-concluded action may have little authoritative value in future litigation.”
DIF&W argued that educating the public on issues of wildlife management was part of its statutory mandate.