Maine’s top court has ruled unanimously against Gov. Paul LePage in his dispute with the Legislature over whether he has more time to veto 65 bills already processed into law.

Thursday’s ruling delivered a significant blow to the governor, who has been engulfed in criticism and scrutiny in the seven months since he began his second term.

The ruling says LePage erred when he determined that the state constitution allowed him more than 10 days to veto the bills.

LePage’s legal team had argued that the Legislature prevented the governor from returning the vetoes because lawmakers had temporarily adjourned. However, the ruling by six of the seven justices on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court rejected that reasoning. The seventh justice recused himself and did not participate in the proceedings.

The 55-page opinion found that although the constitutional language is ambiguous in describing situations that prevent a governor from returning vetoes, the Legislature determines when it is in session and when it adjourns, not the governor.

“It follows that the governor’s authority to object to legislation, to communicate those objections to the Legislature, and to require the Legislature to consider and act upon those objections must not be limited or infringed upon,” the court wrote. “In counterbalance, because the executive (the governor) is not endowed in American democracy with absolute veto power, the Legislature must be able to anticipate and act upon the governor’s objections and, where it determines it appropriate, override those objections.”

Because the court issued an advisory ruling, the governor could challenge it in law court. However, such a legal challenge would likely fail.

The advisory opinion by the court is a victory for the Legislature, which has repeatedly clashed with the Republican governor in disputes both personal and political.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, a Skowhegan Democrat and the House majority leader, said in a written statement that the ruling is “a victory for the Maine people and the Maine Constitution.”

“It affirms both the good bipartisan work of the Legislature and the separation of powers,” he said. “I call on Governor LePage to abide by the court’s opinion, fulfill his constitutional duties and enforce all 71 laws that were duly passed by the Legislature.”

LEPAGE DROPS RESISTANCE TO ENFORCING LAWS

LePage indicated in interviews before the ruling that he would not enforce the 65 laws and would seek additional court relief to block their implementation. But Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in an email Thursday that the governor will implement and enforce the laws now that the court has ruled.

The justices appeared to address the governor’s earlier public comments that he wouldn’t enforce the laws and encouraged him to do so.

“Cognizant that an opinion of the justices is not an adjudication, and is advisory only, we take the governor at his word that he seeks the input of the justices in order to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ ” they wrote.

LePage, in a written statement, did not address whether he would implement the new laws. A media release stated that the governor “has been focused on following the mandates of the Maine Constitution” and that he read the document’s “plain language” before concluding that he had more time to veto the new laws.

“This was not about winning or losing; it was about doing things right,” he said. “We are fortunate to be able to seek legal opinions from the Judicial Branch, and we’re thankful the justices came to a fast and fair resolution to this issue. We look forward to moving on and continuing to work for the Maine people.”

LATE VETOES ALLOW 65 BILLS TO BECOME LAW

The 65 bills in question cover a wide range of policy areas, including General Assistance for asylum seekers, expanded use of a medication to treat drug overdoses, property tax breaks for Vietnam War veterans and birth control for MaineCare recipients.

The political dispute between LePage and the Legislature over whether he filed the 65 vetoes on time has raged since July, when the governor did not act on 19 bills after the July 4th holiday. Top leaders in the Legislature immediately declared that the bills had become law, and nonpartisan staff began writing them into law. LePage, believing the constitution gave him more time to issue vetoes, then didn’t act in time on another 52 bills.

When the Legislature reconvened July 16 he tried to veto 65 of the 71 bills, but the secretary of the Republican-controlled Senate and the clerk of the Democrat-controlled House rejected the veto messages.

The governor then sought an intervention from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Republican Senate President Micheal Thibodeau and House Speaker Mark Eves later hired an attorney to argue that the Legislature had followed precedent and law through its adjournment orders and rejection of the governor’s vetoes.

“The court has rightly rejected Gov. Paul LePage’s legal gymnastics,” Eves said in a written statement Thursday.

The Legislature’s position was backed by Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat. Mills issued an advisory opinion July 10 stating that the 19 bills the governor originally failed to veto had become law.

Mills said in a written statement Thursday that the court’s ruling is “on all fours” with the research conducted by her office and consistent with her advisory opinion.

“The answers to the governor’s questions are clear, unambiguous and completely consistent with his own past practice and with that of every other governor in recent memory,” she said.

The parties participated in oral arguments last Friday before a crowd of more than 100 observers and media. During the arguments, justices quickly challenged assertions by LePage’s attorney, Cynthia Montgomery, that the Legislature’s recess prevented the governor from returning vetoes.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley noted that LePage and previous governors have filed vetoes while the Legislature was not in session. Justice Ellen Gorman sharply questioned Montgomery’s contention that poor communication between the Legislature and the governor’s office was behind confusion over when the clock had begun to tick on the 10-day veto period. Affidavits showed that legislative clerks had told the governor’s office in the days after lawmakers adjourned on June 30 that the clerks were available to receive the vetoes even though lawmakers were not in session, Gorman said.

The political fallout from the veto controversy is unclear. However, the ruling follows a tumultuous session in which the governor became increasingly estranged from lawmakers, including Republicans.

REPUBLICANS CALL FOR END TO DIVISIVENESS

Lance Dutson, a longtime Republican activist who has started a group to counter the governor’s propensity for divisiveness – including targeting Republican lawmakers who disagree with him – issued a statement saying that the ruling affirmed what most political observers already knew.

“As Republicans, we are proud to stand by the principles of honesty, integrity and good government. We hope that this ruling will result in a different pattern of conduct from this administration, one that more closely resembles the tradition of Maine Republican statesmanship that so many of our elected officials have exemplified,” Dutson said. “The time for political games, inflammatory rhetoric and irresponsible governing is over.”

Thibodeau said in a written statement that although he was disappointed that some of the bills were now law, he was pleased that the court reaffirmed “the longstanding, 195-year-old practice of dealing with vetoes that is outlined in the constitution.” He also referenced the governor’s often-antagonistic relationship with the Legislature.

“The executive and legislative branches must work together,” he said. “I encourage the administration to reset their relationship with the Legislature to foster an environment of engagement and collaboration. Effective leadership requires instilling confidence both in our colleagues in Augusta and constituents back home. When that confidence is shaken we should not be surprised when we are unable to accomplish our goals.”