VICTORY! Procedure Matters

Nobody would call the sections of the Maine Constitution that lay out the process by which a bill becomes a law "inspirational." It isn't as uplifting as the recognition that "All people are born equally free and independent," nor as dignifying as the guarantee that "No person. . .shall be denied the equal protection of the laws." But most of our Constitution (and most Constitutions) is concerned with procedure. And, those procedures generally provide the most important protections for the other parts of the Constititution, which are concerned with freedom, equality, dignity, and fairness.

Yesterday, the Justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a landmark advisory opinion on the legislative process--specifically, about the interplay between the Legislature's power to pass bills and the Governor's power to veto those bills. In its opinion, the Justices relied on both the text of the Constitution and the history of how that text has been interpreted and relied upon over our state's history. Based on that, the Justices concluded that the Governor had missed his window for returning bills that were presented to him after June 17 to the Legislature. The Constitution gives the Governor ten days (Sundays excepted) to return bills that have been vetoed to the Legislature while the Legislature is still in session, and, in the opinion of the Justices, the Legislature was still in session until July 16. It is not enough, under the Maine Constitution, that the Governor had the intent to veto the bills (now, laws) at issue; he had to also follow the proper procedure for returning the bills, within the timeframe set forth in the Constitution.

The Justices acted speedily to consider and resolve the dispute, and the people of Maine owe them a debt of gratitude for that. The legislative process only works if every knows (and follows) the same set of rules, and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is, ultimately, the umpire when there is a dispute about those rules.

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