June 17, 2019

Maine Supreme Court Decision Against HSUS Not Necessarily a Victory for Sportsmen

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Maine sportsmen shouldn’t go off half cocked and with swelled chests believing that the decision by the Maine Supreme Court to uphold Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler’s ruling that a lawsuit, filed by Katie Hansberry and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), declared “moot,” was some kind of major victory for sportsmen.

The Sportsmen’s Alliance put out a presser extolling the victory: “Today’s ruling just reaffirms our position and is a clear and decisive victory for sportsmen in Maine,” said Evan Heusinkveld, president and CEO of Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation. “The people of Maine deserve to hear from the experts when it comes to these issues, and today’s ruling rightfully upheld that position.”

A writer for the Bangor Daily News reports: “In March 2015, Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler dismissed the lawsuit, saying it was moot because the election had been decided. She also declared the department’s campaign activities were legal because restricting speech on a contested issue was not in the public’s interest.”

I think it’s imperative that readers examine the written ruling of the Maine Supreme Court on the issue, compare it with comments being made and determine that this ruling is not a huge victory for sportsmen. As well, it’s important to understand what was and what wasn’t written in the decision.

As I understand it, Katie Hansberry and HSUS filed a lawsuit to stop representatives from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) from speaking out in opposition to Question One on the Maine ballot – an initiative that would have effectively ended bear hunting and trapping in the state. From the perspective of MDIFW such a referendum, if passed, would have seriously impeded the department’s ability to responsibly manage black bears.

Maine Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler, at the time of review of the lawsuit, ruled the case “moot” because the referendum voting had already taken place. However, HSUS and Hansberry decided to appeal that ruling and sought from the Maine Supreme Court a clear ruling that would, in the future, prohibit state departments, and in this case MDIFW, from using what they deemed public resources against public referendum issues.

While the Maine Supreme Court upheld Wheeler’s moot ruling, in response to the appeal the justices attempted to explain why the moot decision was upheld and why the same Court could not make a blanket ruling about future campaigns that involve state departments.

The Court writes: “An issue is moot when there remains no “real and substantial controversy, admitting of specific relief through a judgment of conclusive character.”  A controversy that declares rights “upon a state of facts that may or may not arise in the future” is not justiciable.” 

HSUS was seeking a ruling that they could perhaps use that would prohibit any department from speaking out, for or against, in future referendum campaigns. The Court was not going to give them that ruling because there is no way to determine future issues and the context in which such campaign issues may arise.

The lawsuit against the MDIFW claims that employees/representatives of that department, continuing to be allowed to speak out against HSUS’ efforts “harms ongoing efforts” of HSUS. The Court thought otherwise: “This alleged harm does not present a “real and substantial controversy” that could be addressed through “specific relief.” Any relief that MFBH will obtain is theoretical, depending on whether it becomes involved in a future ballot initiative.”

The Court also explains, in depth, certain exceptions to “mootness.” (1) sufficient collateral consequences will result from the determination of the questions presented so as to justify relief; (2) the appeal contains questions of great public concern that, in the interest of providing future guidance to the bar and public we may address; or (3) the issues are capable of repetition but evade review because of their fleeting or determinate nature.

Perhaps of most importance is the following statement found in the ruling as it pertains to why “mootness” exceptions do not exist: “However, the core question at issue in this case is not a generic question; rather, the question presented is the specific agency’s authority in the context of the facts at issue. Each State agency’s authority turns on its individual enabling statute. Although the question may recur, the extent of an agency’s statutory authority, the actions taken by the agency, and the context of those actions will vary and are not predictable. An interpretation of the Department’s enabling statute in the context of this now-concluded action may have little authoritative value in future litigation.” 

Hansberry and the Humane Society of the United States did not get what they wanted but it should be understood that they also were not shut out in their efforts. What they got was a better understanding of how to go about filing the next lawsuit in order to better satisfy the demands of the Maine Court. The ruling does not declare that all of Maine’s governmental departments are free to campaign for or against public issues. Each department is different and the context of the lawsuits – circumstances involved – can and will determine the viability of a lawsuit against the state.

In this particular case, because the lawsuit never reached the Courts before the referendum voting, the case was declared moot and considerations as to future lawsuits could not be evaluated “generically.”

A victory? Perhaps. A huge victory? No. And even the so-perceived victory is in the eye of the beholder. Is it a victory to know that in the right context, the state can be sued to prevent the public from gaining knowledge about a department’s ability to do their jobs? Is it a victory that in the same or different context, that state can not be sued?

Doors always swing in two directions. What we should learn is that in this one particular case, HSUS was not able to get the Court to give them what they wanted to make their future lawsuits easier by censorship. However, they gained understanding for the next time.

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