Gov. Paul LePage plans to claim that his role as the state’s chief executive gives him immunity from a lawsuit brought against him by House Speaker Mark Eves that accuses the governor of violating Eves’ rights by using intimidation to prevent a private school from hiring him.

LePage’s attorney, Patrick Strawbridge, revealed his plan to use the immunity argument in a procedural filing that he entered electronically in U.S. District Court in Portland on New Year’s Eve. The filing shows that Strawbridge intends to submit a motion asking a judge to dismiss Eves’ lawsuit outright on immunity grounds, without delving into whether Eves’ allegations are factual.

The filing marks LePage’s first response to the lawsuit that is likely to take a year or more to play out. With Maine’s Republican governor and the Legislature’s top Democrat at odds in the case, the courtroom conflicts could further sour an already bitter relationship between the executive and legislative branches of state government.

“The motion (to dismiss) will raise substantial questions of immunity under state and federal law, as well as the sufficiency of the alleged constitutional claim,” Strawbridge wrote in the three-page filing.

On Monday, Magistrate Judge John H. Rich III granted a request that Strawbridge made in the filing, ruling that the governor’s attorney may file a memorandum as long as 25 pages to accompany his motion to dismiss, instead of the usual 20 pages allowed for memoranda in civil cases in federal courts in Maine.

Until now, Strawbridge had been reluctant to disclose LePage’s legal defense in the case. As recently as Dec. 18, when Eves’ attorney, David Webbert, filed an amended complaint detailing his allegations against the governor, Strawbridge wouldn’t say whether he would file a motion to dismiss or whether he would file answers to the specifics in Eves’ complaint.

Strawbridge said by phone Monday that he will file the motion to dismiss before a Jan. 19 deadline, but he would not say what the content of that motion will be.

Webbert chided LePage in an emailed statement Monday for deciding to file a motion to dismiss rather than answer the complaint directly and move the case more swiftly to trial.

“The governor has changed positions from ‘bring it on’ to run and hide. Rather than defend his actions in open court, the governor is apparently afraid to have a Maine jury decide this case. But, I am confident that the motion to dismiss will be denied,” Webbert wrote.

Legal observers had said that if LePage pursued a defense that included a motion to dismiss before he filed an answer to the lawsuit, it was unlikely that the case would reach trial in 2016.

Deirdre Smith, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law who has no involvement in the lawsuit, said LePage’s strategy of claiming immunity is not surprising.

“Immunity is a very typical argument that public officials make when they are sued. It’s very common. I certainly would expect it,” Smith said. “But immunity is not absolute.”

Smith said there are immunity exceptions for public officials under both state and federal law, though it is too early to say whether those exceptions will come into play until Strawbridge files the motion to dismiss.

The lawsuit accuses LePage of using taxpayers’ money and the power of the governor’s office to prevent Eves’ hiring as president of Good Will-Hinckley, a private school in Fairfield that operates a charter school partly funded by the state.

Eves claims that Good Will-Hinckley’s board of directors voted June 24 to rescind its offer to hire him as president only after LePage threatened to eliminate $530,000 in state funding for the school.

The amended complaint quotes LePage’s statements to a reporter on June 29, when asked whether he “threatened to withhold money” from Good-Will Hinckley for hiring Eves.

“Yeah, I did! If I could, I would! Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I? Tell me why I wouldn’t take the taxpayer money, to prevent somebody to go into a school and destroy it. Because his heart’s not into doing the right thing for Maine people,” the lawsuit quotes LePage’s response to the reporter.

It also quotes the governor’s statements in a radio interview on July 30, the day Eves initially filed the lawsuit, when LePage answered a question about why he intervened in the school’s hiring of Eves.

“I’ll tell you what my mindset was. This guy is a plant by the unions to destroy charter schools. … I believe that’s what his motive is. … That man had no heart,” the lawsuit quotes LePage as saying. “It is just like one time I stepped in when a domestic violence, when a man was beating his wife. Should I have stepped in? Legally, no. But I did. And I’m not embarrassed about doing it.”

 

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