Less than equal

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  October 2, 2009

AG versus commission staff

Mills herself would not directly say why she sent Martha Hallisey-Swift, an assistant AG, to make the argument she did, only tersely stating in an e-mail that “a prison is not a place of ‘public accommodation’ under the law.” Rowe, who was AG from 2001 to 2008, when Mills succeeded him, said in a statement issued by his campaign, “Any change recommended by the Office of the Attorney General in 2003 would have been a direct result of the Superior Court decision of November 2002 and not as a result of some sort of policy change in the office” — though the statement also said Rowe didn’t recollect the issue.

The late-2002 court decision to which Rowe referred was Napier v. Department of Corrections, in which Justice Atwood dismissed part of a discrimination claim by Maine State Prison inmates Philip Napier and David Mason against the prison because “a prison is not fully open to the public” and it “offers no services to the general public” and so isn’t a public accommodation.

But the human rights commission attorney, Gause — who had represented Napier and Mason while in private practice — argued that Atwood’s decision no longer had to be followed. He wrote a memo to executive director Ryan citing different precedents from those cited by Hallisey-Swift, including a 2007 decision by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and a 2006 Vermont Supreme Court decision. Gause also used different logic from Atwood’s to arrive at the conclusion that government buildings like jails and prisons could be considered places of public accommodation even if all the public couldn’t circulate everywhere in them — as the public couldn’t, for example, in a courthouse, which in the law is given as an example of a place of public accommodation. And Gause noted that places of public accommodation are not limited to buildings where services are given to the general public. He cited country clubs as an example.

But in their brief discussion before their three-to-two decision, the commissioners didn’t deal much with legal arguments.

The dominating figure in the vote was the chairman, Vestal, of Plymouth, a 19-year commission veteran. He waved away “jailhouse lawyer” prisoner complaints with “It used to be they’d use cigarettes to buy testimony. I don’t know what they’re using now.”

Also thinking little of prisoner human-rights complaints in general was Commissioner Fredette, a Newport lawyer, who observed, “Once they get into jail they have not a lot to do,” so they file frivolous complaints. “If you don’t like a particular person, you can file a complaint.”

Two commissioners, Sallie Chandler, of Lebanon, and Joseph Perry, of Searsport, supported the staff’s position, but said little at the meeting. Commissioner Jadine O'Brien, of Portland, cast the deciding vote, saying she would defer to Vestal’s “personal expertise.”

Thus, the majority of the commissioners — all of them appointed by Democratic Governor John Baldacci — simply didn’t think prisoners deserved the human-rights protections the commission could have offered them.

“It’s inconceivable to me that the State of Maine can say to businesses that discrimination is illegal and then discriminate itself in its own operation,” comments Zachary Heiden, staff attorney for the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “I hope that’s not the law, but if it is, then that needs to be changed.”

Lance Tapley can be reached atlance.tapley@gmail.com.

Editor's Note: "Less than equal" misidentified a member of the Maine Human Rights Commission who cast the deciding vote in denying commission protection to inmates. It was Jadine O'Brien, not A. Mavourneen Thompson. Thompson has since been confirmed to the commission. She says would have considered the matter with an open mind had she been on the commission at the time of the vote.

< prev  1  |  2  |  3  | 
  Topics: News Features , Politics, Culture and Lifestyle, Satanism,  More more >
| More


Most Popular
ARTICLES BY LANCE TAPLEY
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   MICHAEL JAMES SENT BACK TO PRISON  |  April 16, 2014
    The hearing’s topic was whether James’s “antisocial personality disorder” was enough of a mental disease to keep him from being sent to prison.
  •   LOCKING UP THE MENTALLY ILL  |  April 03, 2014
    The merger of the prison and mental-health systems continues
  •   WHERE ARE THE LEADERS ON CLIMATE CHANGE?  |  March 20, 2014
    The conference was held in March despite the risk of a snowstorm because its organizers wanted “to reach the Legislature while it’s in session,” co-coordinator Fred Horch said.
  •   ANATOMY OF A RIP-OFF, PART II  |  March 06, 2014
    Imagine if state government gave out millions of dollars a year to fat-cat financiers, big banks,  and speculative ventures without monitoring how the money is spent — basically, giving it to whoever walks in the door as long as they flash a few credentials.
  •   ANATOMY OF A TAXPAYER RIP-OFF  |  February 19, 2014
    To try to restore several hundred mill jobs to the historic paper-making North Country towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket, Maine’s politicians, in a bipartisan manner, have given away and are planning to give away millions of taxpayer dollars to various corporate interests, including big, out-of-state banks.

 See all articles by: LANCE TAPLEY