Lawmakers must give the Lewiston shooting commission subpoena power

Avatar photoby The BDN Editorial Board November 24, 2023

The Legislature should approve subpoena power as soon as possible.
In this June 21, 2023, file photo, the morning fog lifts beyond the Burton M. Cross Building, left, and the State House in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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The newly formed commission to investigate the facts surrounding the horrific Oct. 25 Lewiston shooting has sensibly asked for subpoena power so it can compel testimony and documents, if needed, as part of its review. The Legislature, we’ll say once again, should approve this additional investigatory power as soon as possible.

Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey had made clear that they stood ready to ask the Legislature to give the commission this power, the commission has now asked for it, Mills and Frey have seconded that ask, and lawmakers shouldn’t delay in delivering it once they return to session.

We can understand that some lawmakers want legislative involvement in reviewing the facts proceeding, during and after the shooting that claimed 18 lives and injured 13 others. They can, and should, do that regardless of what the Independent Commission to Investigate the Facts of the Tragedy in Lewiston, which met for the first time Monday, does. We’re certainly not asking the Government Oversight Committee or any other legislative committee to remain on the sidelines. But the Legislature can help ensure the commission’s work is unimpeded by immediately providing subpoena power to the commission and, if it deems it necessary, then undertake its own review.

This process and the many details involved are complex, but in simplest terms: This commission, which was intentionally chosen to be independent and distanced from politics, has a critical charge. It requires an additional tool from the Legislature to best fulfill that charge, and lawmakers should be looking to facilitate that work rather than bog it down.

We’ve found some of the early legislative reaction to this issue, particularly the hesitance from Maine Senate Republican leadership, to be perplexing. In contrast, their colleagues in House Republican leadership have shown a quick and direct appreciation for the need to extend subpoena power to the commission.

“I absolutely will support it,” Amy Arata, the assistant House Republican leader, told the Portland Press Herald earlier this week. “As a member of the Government Oversight Committee, I know how frustrating it is when you’re trying to do your job without being able to get all the info we need.”

Republican House leader Billy Bob Faulkingham similarly signaled his support.

“The victims, their families, as well as the Maine people deserve to know the details of how the system failed us on October 25th,” Faulkingham said, as reported by the Press Herald. “The Maine House Republicans are committed to bringing daylight to this situation… If subpoena powers are required to determine the truth, then I am inclined to support the request.”

Faulkingham has appropriately centered this question around the shooting victims, their families and the Maine people. Providing them with answers, both as detailed and as quickly as possible, needs to be the priority. Subpoena power has an important role to play in achieving that.

Commissioner Toby Dilworth, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is now managing director at the law firm Drummond Woodsum, provided a good explanation of why this power is important at the commission’s initial Nov. 20 meeting.

“We hope and expect that people will cooperate with us, and come and make their documents and evidence available to us, but some may resist. And we would need a subpoena under those circumstances,” Dilworth explained. “And others may want to cooperate with us, but feel constrained by privacy and other statutes, that they can’t turn the records over in the absence of a subpoena. And so we’re going to be seeking military records, and psychiatric records, and medical records, and all of those may not be producible to us without this subpoena power.”

Lawmakers should listen to this message, and the message from fellow legislators like House Republican leaders who are already making clear and strong arguments, to better equip the Lewiston shooting commission in its vital fact-finding mission.

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