Procedure, Not Politics

Amid the intense coverage of the Colorado ballot exclusion case that was the subject of oral argument before the Supreme Court earlier this month, the Law Court’s decision in Trump v. Secretary of State on a parallel appeal of the Maine Secretary of State’s decision to bar Donald Trump from the ballot has garnered comparatively little notice.  The Law Court’s decision has flown under the radar because it does not reach the merits of the meaning and application of the Fourteenth Amendment, but instead turns on appellate procedure. Procedure matters, however, and the decision raises an interesting question.

The challenge to Trump’s primary ballot petition was governed by 21-A M.R.S. § 337, which requires (1) the Secretary to rule on any petition challenge within 5 days of a hearing on the challenge, (2) the Superior Court issue a decision on any appeal within 20 days of the Secretary’s ruling, and (3) the Law Court to issue a decision on any

When Should Prior Precedent Be Overruled?

With debates over the application of stare decisis taking center stage in recent Supreme Cout arguments regarding the viability of Chevron deference—an issue which we will likely revisit in June—it was notable that the Law Court recently engaged in its own heated debate over that doctrine in Finch v. U.S. Bank, N.A. I recently blogged about the substance of that decision. Today, we take a look at the court’s discussion of stare decisis.

The doctrine of stare decisis, as the court noted, is a judge-made doctrine designed to create stability in the law and enable the public to reasonably rely on judicial decisions. Fair enough. But courts and commentators agree that there can be a time and a place to overrule precedents. But when, and for what reasons?

In Finch, the Law Court noted that “stare decisis does not carry the same force and weight in every context,

The Court as Casino No More: Law Court Ends Stringent Foreclosure Rule

The Law Court has dramatically reshaped foreclosure law in Maine, ending the Court’s outlier position regarding the effect of a defective notice of default.  In Finch v. U.S. Bank, N.A., the Court held that, when a lender fails to comply with the notice requirements of 14 M.R.S. § 6111 prior to initiating a foreclosure action, the lender does not lose the right to subsequently enforce the mortgage. In so doing, the Law Court took the unusual step of overruling its prior precedent in Pushard v. Bank of America, N.A.

The Finch decision has significant implications, and is notable on multiple levels—including both the merits of the decision and the heated debate over stare decisis between the majority and the dissent.  The stare decisis discussion deserves its own blog post, so we’ll tackle this decision in two parts.

The background is straightforward: the lender, U.S. Bank, issued a defective notice that failed to satisfy

The Limits of Deference to Agency Interpretations under Maine Law

Earlier this month, the Maine Law Court issued its decision in Cassidy Holdings, LLC v. Aroostook County Commissioners, holding that, in a municipality without a board of assessment review, a taxpayer whose nonresidential property is valued at $1 million or more has the option to appeal an assessment either to the county commissioners or to the State Board of Property Tax Review. The decision has been described by my excellent colleagues, Jon Block and Olga Goldberg.  For purposes of this blog, it is noteworthy that that Cassidy Holdings took up an issue of broad application: the extent of deference owed to changing agency interpretations of a state law.

In Cassidy Holdings, the county commissioners cited a Tax Bulletin issued by Maine Revenue Services as support for their statutory interpretation argument.  The interpretive guidance provided by the Maine Revenue Services, however, had changed over time.  Initially, the agency had taken the position that appeals could

(Precedent) Singing in Harmony

The Law Court recently cleaned up a tangle of legal precedent regarding the appropriate means for challenging a property tax assessment, explaining and harmonizing two hundred years of case law.  Oakes v. Town of Richmond establishes clear guidelines for tax appeals.

The issue in Oakes was the proper procedural vehicle for contesting a property tax that a taxpayer claims should not have been assessed at all.  In that case, a taxpayer had challenged a tax assessment based on an argument that she did not own the subject property.  The Superior Court dismissed the claim, concluding that it could not be brought via a declaratory judgment action.  The Law Court reversed.

In a lengthy, and scholarly, recitation, the Court traced the two-hundred-year history of its precedent addressing the question whether particular property tax claims must be brought in an administrative abatement proceeding or in a declaratory judgment action.  As that recitation shows, the relevant precedent struck some discordant notes

The Primacy Doctrine and Appellate Advocacy

As readers of this blog know, state constitutional interpretation has been a matter of discussion here and at the Maine Law Court over the last few years.  Maine jurisprudence has seen a revival of the primacy doctrine, which directs state courts to resolve state constitutional issues prior to and independently of any federal constitutional issues.  This revival has, in turn, highlighted the need for lawyers to engage in the advocacy necessary to enable the Law Court to engage in meaningful state constitutional analysis.

This is the issue that the Law Court took up in its most recent pronouncement on the primacy doctrine.  In State v. Norris, the Law Court was compelled to find that a criminal defendant had waived an independent claim under the Maine Constitution’s search and seizure provision.  But Justice Connors, writing for the Court, did not stop there.  Instead, the Court carefully explained what is required to preserve a state constitutional claim.


Beware the Appeal Deadline, Part 2: Motions to Amend a Judgment v. Motions for Relief from Judgment

In Board of Overseers v. Brown, the Law Court addressed the timeliness of an appeal following a “motion for clarification” of a judgment.  In doing so, the Law Court drew an interesting distinction between requests for relief that qualify as a motion to alter or amend the judgment under Rule 59(e) (which toll the appeal deadline) and those that are categorized as a motion for relief from judgment under Rule 60(b) (which do not toll the appeal deadline).  This distinction poses potential traps for the unwary.

Brown involved a bar complaint against an attorney for violations of the Maine Rules of Professional Conduct, which led to the imposition of sanctions by a single justice.  Within 14 days of entry of judgment (perhaps not coincidentally, the deadline for a Rule 59(e) motion), the Board of Overseers of the Bar filed a “motion for clarification,” without citing the authority upon which it relied, seeking additional sanctions.  The single justice granted the

Beware the Appeal Deadline: Pending Motions and Entry of Final Judgment

The Law Court’s decision in Fournier v. Flats Industrial, Inc., issued last week, provides a stark reminder of the importance of attention to the deadlines for filing an appeal of a final judgment.  The Law Court treats the deadline as jurisdictional, and requires “strict compliance”—even when, as in Fournier, the trial court may not have yet resolved all pending motions before entry of final judgment.

In Fournier, after the Superior Court granted a motion to dismiss two of three counts in the plaintiffs’ complaint, the plaintiffs filed a stipulation voluntarily dismissing the final count together with a motion for a protective order to preserve the confidentiality of certain documents.  The Superior Court granted the motion for protective order four days after the stipulation and motion were filed.  Nineteen days later—importantly, more than 21 days after filing the stipulation of dismissal—the plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal relating to the two counts previously dismissed by the

Appellate Preservation and Summary Judgment

The necessity of preserving issues for appeal can be a trap for the unwary, leaving litigants without recourse if they fail to take proper steps to preserve a particular argument.  Near the end of its recent term, the Supreme Court made this requirement slightly less fraught.  In Dupree v. Younger, the Court clarified that a party who wishes to preserve for appeal a purely legal issue resolved at summary judgment need not raise the issue anew in a post-trial motion.

A quick background primer.  In 2011, the Supreme Court held in Ortiz v. Jordan that an order denying summary judgment on sufficiency-of-the-evidence grounds is not appealable after trial.  Most interlocutory decisions are not immediately appealable, and simply merge into the final judgment for appeal after entry of final judgment.  Some interlocutory orders, however, are “unreviewable after final judgment because they are overcome by later developments in the litigation.”  In Ortiz, the Court explained that

Keeping Form Subservient to Substance in Rule 80B (and 80C) Actions

What is the proper remedy when a party challenges a municipal action under Rule 80B, but the court later determines that this was the wrong procedural vehicle to challenge the municipal action?  In Hurricane Island Foundation v. Town of Vinalhaven, the Law Court took a pragmatic approach by treating the proceeding as a declaratory judgment action rather than dismissing the action.

In Hurricane Island Foundation, a nonprofit sought to challenge a town tax assessor’s decision denying the nonprofit a tax abatement.  The nonprofit brought its challenge under Rule 80B.  The Town, however, argued that this was the wrong procedural vehicle because review of an assessor’s decision must be obtained through abatement or declaratory judgment.  The Law Court ultimately agreed, concluding that Rule 80B does not provide for review of a tax assessor’s decision.  This raised an important issue—should the lawsuit be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction?

The Law Court applied a very practical solution.