Gov. Paul LePage – much like his counterpart in the White House – consistently violates the norms of governance.
His disregard for the law and for civil, appropriate behavior are dangerous. The Legislature has reacted by contorting itself into a legalistic pretzel.
The governor’s recent threats to depose sheriffs based on his flawed interpretation of the law and the Maine Constitution are the latest example. He wants to remove the sheriffs because he thinks they should illegally hold people in jail.
And now a state lawmaker has stepped up to try to change the constitution because the governor fails to recognize the norms of governance that would constrain most decent people.
Simply put, it would be an abuse of power for the governor to attempt to remove a sheriff from office – to turn over the results of an election – over a political dispute.
The remedy, however, is not to change the constitution of the state. The remedy would be to impeach the governor.
Maine’s form of government is built upon a balance of power between the three branches, a system of checks and balances and governing norms. Taken together, they set the limits on the power of government actors.
The constitutional provision that allows the governor to remove a sheriff is part of the safeguards built into state government to protect us all.
A sheriff bent on abusing his or her authority or violating the law could have a terrible impact on the people of the state. The power to arrest and imprison someone carries an awesome responsibility and the power to hold a sheriff accountable is an important safeguard to protect democracy.
For an example, consider Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was recently pardoned by President Donald Trump. Arpaio is a criminal who abused his authority and a dangerous man who belongs behind bars for the way he targeted people of color for illegal treatment.
If Maine were to wake up tomorrow with our own Arpaio, we would want a mechanism to hold him accountable and to remove him from office.
The Maine Constitution vests the executive branch and the judicial branch with the power to place a check on sheriffs.
But the writers of the constitution could not have predicted the rise of a governor who willfully dismisses the voice of voters, who pushes the boundaries of the law, who abuses his authority and who searches for ways to push the boundaries of appropriate behavior.
LePage glady ignores the norms that hold the behavior of most elected leaders in check. And he does it to the cheers of his supporters, who appear ready to defend him regardless of what words he utters or actions he takes.
The governor has used the power of his office to have a political rival fired. He’s threatened a lawmaker, made racist statements, covered up misdeeds in his administration, refused to issue bonds and tried to circumvent the constitution around vetoes.
He ignores law that requires permanent commissioners to be appointed, subverting the Legislature’s role in vetting nominees for cabinet positions.
He essentially does whatever he pleases and dares the other branches of government – or frankly, everyone – to stop him if they can.
His unlawful threats against sheriffs is just the latest example of LePage’s brand of “imperial governorship,” to riff off the famous political science text, “The Imperial Presidency,” which was written by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
In an imperial presidency, the president uses power beyond what is specifically granted by the constitution and laws and seeks to undermine or overwhelm the checks and balances and balance of power, which were put in place to limit presidential authority. The same description works for a governor.
With divided government in the Legislature and term limits, the power of the legislative branch has been weakened. They don’t have the staff, resources or expertise to match the power of the governor and the more than 10,000 executive branch employees at his disposal.
So they are left with two choices. They chase after the governor, trying to clean up his messes and block his worst abuses while trying to carry on a semblance of reasonable governance, the current, less than successful path.
Or they use the power vested in the Legislature to impeach the governor and remove him from office.
There have been many calls for the governor to be removed from office for his various misdeeds. And with just over a year left in his term, some people might argue that it’s too late to do anything about his actions. He is, after all, the lamest of lame ducks.
But I disagree.
If the governor attempts to remove a sheriff from office then the Legislature has one choice. The members must use the constitutional power they have been granted to throw the brakes on the governor’s actions. He needs to be impeached.
To do less – to allow a sheriff to be bullied and then removed for no legitimate reason – would put democracy at risk and cause lasting damage to the checks and balances that prevent a governor from using the awesome power of the office for ill.