Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday filed a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit brought against him by House Speaker Mark Eves, claiming his role as the state’s chief executive grants him immunity and that he is otherwise protected by his First Amendment free speech right.

An attorney for LePage, Patrick Strawbridge, filed the motion in U.S. District Court in Portland seeking to have lawsuit defeated without going into the facts of the case, which the Democratic House speaker contends will show the Republican governor used intimidation to prevent a private school from hiring Eves.

“The case involves a political dispute that does not belong in court,” Strawbridge wrote in the introduction to the 34-page motion that includes a table of contents and pages of reference to case law and statutes.

The filing is the first formal response in court by LePage since Eves filed the lawsuit in July, beginning what will now likely be a legal back and forth that will take more than a year to play out. With Maine’s top Republican and leading legislative Democrat playing central roles, the case is likely to generate headlines with each new motion, hearing, filing and press release.

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.

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.

An amended complaint filed on Dec. 18 by Eves’ attorney, David Webbert, 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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