AUGUSTA, Maine — Paul LePage isn’t the first Maine governor to threaten to remove sheriffs.
He isn’t even the first Republican to do it — or the first one who ascended to the office from Waterville.
More than a century ago, Waterville lawyer William T. Haines narrowly won a two-year term as governor, promising to aggressively enforce Maine’s alcohol prohibition laws as part of a dry Republican platform. Within four months of his inauguration, three sheriffs were gone.
LePage, a Republican and former Waterville mayor, did something similar last week when he threatened to fire two Maine sheriffs for not cooperating with requests from federal immigration officials to hold inmates past scheduled release dates without a warrant.
It didn’t go well for Haines, who lost re-election two years later. But Maine law has changed a lot since then, making it unclear what process LePage would follow to remove sheriffs.
Haines’ demands worked politically, but not practically. Maine passed a first-in-the-nation prohibition law in 1851. A watered-down law replaced it seven years later. Partial bans persisted until prohibition was written into the Maine Constitution in 1885.
Bars were still common, but Maine voted in 1911 to keep prohibition in the Constitution. In 1912, Haines — a former attorney general, legislator and Kennebec County attorney — campaigned on ramping up enforcement.
His dry candidacy amused The New York Times. In September 1912, it said he brought in a “not brilliant” $13,000 in liquor fines in his four years as county attorney while a Democratic successor collected $16,000 in one year. But he beat an incumbent Democrat.
In his inaugural address, Haines cast drinkers as pariahs. A man seeking work with “rum in his breath” would be doomed to “trampdom.” A farmer coming home drunk was viewed with “contempt” by neighbors who would give the drunk’s wife and children “pity and sympathy.”
“All that remains is for the law officers, especially sheriffs, city marshals, and county attorneys, to do their duty and enforce this law in accordance with the oaths they have taken,” he said, drawing applause from a large crowd as reported by the Bangor Daily News.
Haines’ argument was powerful politically, but not practically. An “old resident” told the Times that while Mainers wanted an alcohol ban, “they do not want it enforced.” But many in the religious community — led by the Christian Civic League of Maine — demanded it be enforced.
The BDN’s local liquor coverage then was perfunctory. On Jan. 11, a front-page headline declared Millinocket “very, very dry” with praise for a Penobscot County sheriff’s deputy. In March, it praised the Waldo County sheriff for a “clever capture” of Belfast whiskey-runners.
Haines then moved on four Maine sheriffs and a county attorney. In late March, Haines told the Legislature that he received complaints that led him to believe that liquor laws were “not fairly or honestly enforced” by officials in five counties.
He said the “most flagrant” case was in Cumberland County, but he also named sheriffs in Androscoggin and Knox counties. The Legislature asked for more information, gathered evidence and scheduled proceedings on two of those elected officials, the Penobscot County sheriff and the Androscoggin County attorney.
The hearings were lengthy affairs a joint session of the Legislature. Penobscot County Sheriff Wilbert Emerson had only taken the office in January and his lawyer said that he found conditions “deplorable,” since alcohol had been “recognized as a legitimate traffic” around Bangor for 50 years. He gave examples of raids he attended as far away as Enfield.
It didn’t matter. Lawmakers recommended that Emerson, Cumberland County Sheriff Lewis Moulton and Sagadahoc County Sheriff John Ballou be removed. The Androscoggin sheriff resigned. Knox’s sheriff never made it to Augusta because he said he was quarantined for smallpox — which Haines called “an artful subterfuge” — and the county attorney wasn’t convicted.
The three sheriffs were removed and replaced later that month by Haines and his executive council. Haines lost his 1914 re-election and things didn’t get much better in Bangor — by 1918, other governors removed two of Emerson’s successors.
But Maine law has changed since then, and it’s unclear how LePage would remove sheriffs. In 1917, Maine took the Legislature out of the removal process, passing a constitutional amendment giving that power to the governor and his Executive Council — a seven-member check on executives that was usually filled with ex-legislators from the majority party.
The last ouster of a Maine sheriff may have been in Kennebec County in 1926 — again over liquor. A grand jury foreman did complain in 1951 that a Cumberland County sheriff wasn’t enforcing gambling laws. It went to a hearing, but evidence was deemed insufficient.
Maine voters abolished the Executive Council after a 1975 vote that removed every reference to it from the Constitution. If a governor is going to remove a sheriff now, the Constitution requires a complaint and a hearing. It doesn’t say what the hearing would look like.
Fast-forward to LePage, who enters his potential battle with sheriffs with that constitutional provision and a state law saying sheriffs have to obey his orders. Sheriffs say that holding inmates past release dates opens them to false imprisonment lawsuits.
If LePage tests his power, this issue is likely to be settled in court. While Maine’s history is rich, it doesn’t provide us with many answers about how that would go.