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A lawyer urged a federal appeals court Tuesday to toss a lawsuit accusing Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage of blackmail for threatening to withhold state funding to force a charter school operator to rescind a job offer to a Democratic political opponent.
Attorney Patrick Strawbridge told the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston it should uphold a decision dismissing the case brought by former House Speaker Mark Eves because the governor is immune from the legal challenge and did nothing wrong.
But Eves' lawyer, David Webbert, said no "reasonable" official could think the job would be subject to a "political loyalty requirement." He and Eves say the governor clearly crossed a line and the courts need to prevent others from taking similar actions in the future.
"The governor blackmailed a private nonprofit school that serves children at risk because his political opponent got the job," Eves, who's now running for Maine governor, said after the hearing. "It's an extreme abuse of power, and I'm not going to give up on making sure that we can set this precedent moving forward."
LePage, a staunch charter school supporter, admitted in 2015 to threatening to withhold funding for Good Will-Hinckley and urging it not to hire Eves because the Democrat frequently opposed charter schools in the Legislature.
The revelations roiled the statehouse and propelled an unsuccessful effort by Democrats to impeach the outspoken governor, who dismissed the attempt as "nonsense" and "foolishness."
LePage's lawyers say it wasn't blackmail, and the governor is free to make decisions about public money based on concerns about the implementation of charter school policy.
Furthermore, Strawbridge told the judges that LePage must be granted immunity, because there's no prior court ruling that makes it clear that the governor's actions were unconstitutional.
"We certainly believe there are a number of issues on the merits why there is no constitutional claim here, but we think this is an easy case" on immunity grounds, Strawbridge said after the hearing.
But Eves' lawyers argue the governor's actions should not be shielded from the court's scrutiny.
"Politics is fine in the Legislature, but not for a 100-year-old charitable organization that helps at-risk children," Webbert said. "The governor crossed a line, and the courts are here to enforce those boundary lines."
Two of the six judges that will deliberate in the case were not present at the hearing for unknown reasons, and the remaining judges gave little indication how they might rule.
The 1st Circuit typically takes months to rule on cases, and it's unclear whether there will be a decision before November, when term-limited LePage's successor will be elected.
A divided three-judge panel of the appeals court sided with LePage, but the full court said in January it would take the unusual step of rehearing the case.
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