August 23, 2011

Independent's lawsuit called 'unfounded'

By Rebekah Metzler rmetzler@mainetoday.com
MaineToday Media State House Writer

AUGUSTA -- A lawsuit filed by an unenrolled Maine voter who says the state's political parties have too much control over the redistricting process is unfounded, party officials and the governor's office say.

Mike Turcotte, an independent from Bangor, filed the suit last week against Gov. Paul LePage. It charges that the rights of individuals enrolled in political parties supersede those of unenrolled voters because 14 of the 15 members of the Reapportionment Committee are registered Republicans or Democrats. That denies his right to "equal representation" under the U.S. Constitution, Turcotte argues.

The one independent member of the panel serves as the chairman.

"If anybody can do this, then why is it just the political parties are doing this?" Turcotte said in an interview. "The makeup of the largest voting bloc is independents, but yet independents are not having any say in what is going on."

Turcotte's lawsuit was reported first by Gerald Weinand, a blogger who runs the left-leaning website www.dirigoblue.com.

The Attorney General's Office is expected to craft a response to the suit, which requested a temporary restraining order on the work of the Reapportionment Committee.

Turcotte, a doctoral student at Franklin Pierce University studying leadership, said he became concerned about the process about two weeks ago. That's when he started researching case law and, with no legal experience, filed suit last Wednesday.

Dan Billings, chief legal counsel for LePage and a member of the reapportionment panel, said the suit is without merit.

"This will go away quickly," he said. Billings also questioned why LePage was named in the suit, when the Legislature created the committee.

Turcotte has a policy argument to make, not a constitutional one, Billings said.

Maine voters -- Republicans, Democrats, Greens and unenrolled -- elected state lawmakers who unanimously approved the makeup of the redistricting committee, he added.

"(Unenrolled voters) aren't shut out any more on this than they are on any other issue," Billings said.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Deb Plowman, R-Hampden, also a panel member, said Turcotte's suit reaffirmed for her the need to make sure the congressional lines are drawn in a way that will withstand a constitutional challenge.

"We need to take it as a caution that while many activists are watching on either side -- Democrat and Republican -- that independent citizens like Mr. Turcotte are out there as well to make sure that even if we come to a compromise, that (it's) not challengeable either," she said.

Janet Mills, vice chairwoman of the Maine Democratic Party and a former Maine attorney general, said the committee was modeled on constitutional language that has dictated reapportionment panels in Maine for the last 40 years.

"I almost think I agree with Dan Billings," Mills said, chuckling. The appropriate time for Turcotte to voice his opinion was when the legislation regarding the committee was being crafted, she said.

Turcotte said it's not his intention to slow down the redistricting process.

"It occurs to me that while the political parties argue, the rest of the citizens suffer, and these little spats that they have just kind of disenfranchise people to be in the process. But that's not the reason why I did this," he said. "The reason was because I felt that as an individual, that the political parties were given more rights than I was."

Turcotte suggested in his lawsuit that Maine use a panel of volunteer registered voters who would be chosen by lottery. His suit describes in detail how the process should work, calling for the governor to be blindfolded when selecting the committee members.

Members of the Reapportionment Committee are scheduled to hear public testimony on draft plans for redistributing Maine's population between its two congressional districts at 9 a.m. today in the Appropriations Committee room at the State House in Augusta.

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