An organization representing forest products businesses and a logging company have filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to scuttle a new law that prohibits large landowners from hiring foreign truck drivers to haul logs harvested in Maine to other destinations in the state.
The plaintiffs are asking a federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order to keep the law from taking effect on Oct. 18. The complaint argues that the measure is unconstitutional and that the Maine attorney general’s office warned the governor and lawmakers earlier this year that it could not withstand a constitutional challenge.
L.D. 188 targeted truck drivers working legally in Maine with H-2A visas, a work visa most often issued to farm workers. It was sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, a logger and longtime critic of the hiring of foreign workers by large landowners in the forest industry.
In addition to preventing the hiring of foreign drivers to haul logs within Maine, the bill tasked the Maine Bureau of Forestry with enforcing it. Landowners and drivers who violated it could be fined between $1,000 and $10,000, the complaint said.
The bill passed the Legislature in June and became law without the signature of Gov. Janet Mills.
The Maine Forest Products Council, a nonprofit industry association that represents the interests of the forest products industry in Maine; Pepin Lumber Inc., a U.S. logging firm; and Stephane Audet, a Canadian truck driver who works for Pepin on Thursday sued Patty Cormier, the director of the Maine Bureau of Forestry, and Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey in U.S. District Court in Bangor.
“The issues presented in this litigation are significant to the forest products industry in Maine, and the Maine Forest Products Council looks forward to resolving them before the court,” the council said Thursday.
The complaint alleges that Frey’s office said in June that the law violated the supremacy and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. That opinion from Frey’s office came in response to a request from the governor’s chief counsel, Jerry Reid.
“[T]he bill conflicts with federal law because it would prohibit and penalize conduct that the federal government expressly allows under the H-2A visa program,” Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Patwardhan, said in a memo to Reid included with the complaint.
The state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which includes the Maine Forest Service, opposed Jackson’s bill at a public hearing earlier this year. Another state agency, the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, testified neither for nor against the legislation.
Jackson last year filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, saying that the agency shouldn’t allow H-2A visa holders to transport forest products within the U.S. He said in the complaint that the Department of Labor had failed to enforce federal immigration law by allowing the practice. His legislation aimed to address the practice within Maine.
In testimony on the bill in February, Maine Forest Products Council President Patrick Strauch noted that only 12 truckers recently were working in Maine under H-2A visas.
Jackson on Thursday criticized opponents of his legislation for minimizing the problem in testimony to lawmakers, then bringing a lawsuit days before the law is to take effect.
“I’m hopeful that this lawsuit will draw attention to this gross injustice happening in the Maine woods and that the courts will do right by Maine loggers and truckers, adversely impacted by this practice,” he said.
Frey’s spokesperson, Marc Malon, declined to comment on the case. It is the practice of the attorney general’s office not to comment on most pending litigation. The office serves as the lawyer for state agencies and the Maine Legislature.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock on Thursday gave the defendants until Nov. 1 to file its response to the motion for an injunction and a temporary restraining order and the defense until Nov. 12 to reply. The state is not expected to enforce the new law until the judge issues a ruling on its constitutionality.
Frey said that his office informed lawmakers of the potential legal challenges the law would face before it passed the Legislature.
“We anticipated there would be a challenge in federal court and we are prepared to confront that challenge,” he said. “Only a court may determine whether the law is constitutional, and we intend to vigorously defend the law and present all available arguments supporting the law’s constitutionality.”
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock on Thursday gave the defendants until Nov. 1 to file their response to the motion for an injunction and a temporary restraining order and the plaintiffs until Nov. 12 to reply. The state is not expected to enforce the new law until the judge issues a ruling on its constitutionality.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated which country Pepin Lumber Inc. is in.