A panel of federal appeals court judges in Boston has ruled in favor of Gov. Paul LePage in a lawsuit brought by outgoing House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, in 2015.

Eves filed the lawsuit after LePage threatened to withhold state funds from Good Will-Hinckley, which operates the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences charter school in Hinckley, when the school’s parent organization hired Eves to be its president.

The nonprofit’s board offered Eves the job in June 2015 but rescinded the offer roughly two weeks later after LePage blasted his hiring and threatened to withhold future state funding, which prompted Eves to file the lawsuit in federal court in Maine.

Eves and his attorney accused the Republican governor of “blackmailing” the school for at-risk students and argued that LePage’s action violated the Democratic speaker’s rights to free speech and political affiliation, as well as his right to due process. In May, U.S. District Judge George Z. Singal dismissed Eves’ lawsuit, prompting an appeal by Eves‘ attorney in August.

In a 2-1 ruling Tuesday, a panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston again ruled in favor of LePage.

Judge Sandra Lynch, writing for the majority, said Eves had failed to prove “beyond debate that Governor LePage unlawfully infringed upon the Speaker’s First Amendment interests.”

Lynch wrote that a “reasonable governor could have been uncertain whether the attempts to influence GWH would infringe upon the Speaker’s constitutional rights – even if the attempts were successful. No Supreme Court case or circuit case clearly forbade Gov. LePage from informing a potential recipient of a government grant of his intention to exercise funding discretion, afforded him by the state legislature, if the potential recipient chose to persist with a course of action that the Governor disfavored.”

The third judge on the panel, Circuit Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, disagreed and wrote in her dissenting opinion that it was clear LePage had overstepped his authority.

“I have no trouble concluding that Governor LePage’s bullying – forcing GWH to sack Speaker Eves on pain of losing more than a million bucks in expected state funding, knowing as he did that such a loss would likely kill GWH – is the type of coercion condemned by (other court cases),” Thompson wrote.

David Webbert, an attorney for Eves, also pointed out that the appeals court finding was constrained only to the issue of whether LePage enjoyed immunity as the state’s governor and that the appeals court also overturned a state court ruling on the case – allowing Eves’ complaint to move forward at the state level.

Webbert, in a prepared statement Tuesday, said Eves was considering his options.

“This case is about one thing: protecting Maine citizens and private organizations from being blackmailed, threatened, and intimidated by a politician willing to abuse government power for partisan reasons,” Webbert said. “Speaker Eves will be considering all his options for pursuing this case further and expects to decide within two weeks what his next steps will be.”

Options for Eves include appealing Tuesday’s finding to the full six-member 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or refiling the lawsuit he brought in state Superior Court, Webbert said.

Attempts to reach LePage’s communications staff and his attorney on the case, Patrick Strawbridge, were not successful.


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