On August 13, 2020, the Maine Supreme Court ruled in Avangrid Networks, Inc. v. Secretary of State that a ballot referendum scheduled to appear on the November 2020 ballot was an unconstitutional violation of state separation of powers principles. The judges held that the referendum did not meet the requirements of the state constitution for inclusion on the ballot because, in their words, “it exceeds the scope of the people’s legislative powers” under the Maine Constitution.
The referendum aimed to overturn a decision by the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to give a company permission to build a high-voltage power line to deliver electricity from Canada. The Maine Supreme Court argued that it had the power to review the constitutionality of the referendum before the November election to determine whether it would be a proper exercise of the people’s legislative authority.
The court ruled that the referendum was not within the legislative power of the people of Maine because it would be an exercise of executive or judicial power instead of legislative. The court wrote that the referendum’s “purpose and effect is to dictate the Commission’s exercise of its quasi-judicial executive-agency function in a particular proceeding.” The court added that the referendum “would interfere with and vitiate the Commission’s fact-finding and adjudicatory function—an executive power conferred on the Commission by the Legislature.”
While the legislature has the power to limit the legislative functions and authority of the PUC, the court ruled that it does not have the power to require the PUC to overturn and reverse a particular administrative decision that it had made. Since the ballot referendum process is an exercise of legislative power, the court held that the same limitation applies. Under the separation of powers provision contained in the Maine Constitution, no one in a particular branch of government may exercise the powers that belong to the other branches of government.
The court ruled that since the referendum did not propose legislation it should not appear on the November 2020 election ballot.
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