Maine Supreme Court Says State Cannot Deny Food Stamps to Eligible Asylum Seekers
After relocating his family of four to the United States from Burundi—a country struggling with political unrest and violence—in 2014, Euphrem Manirakiza applied for food supplement benefits (commonly referred to as “food stamps”), on behalf of his family. When he applied, Mr. Manirakiza and his wife, Francine Kanyange, had received their Employment Authorization Documents from the federal government and, along with their two oldest children, were lawfully present non-citizens seeking asylum in the United States. Because Ms. Kanyange remained unemployed, she was eligible to receive State food supplement benefits under a law passed by the Maine Legislature in 2013, and was later codified at 22 M.R.S.A. § 3104-A(1)(D) (“Paragraph D”).
When the Legislature adopted the provision that provided individuals like Ms. Kanyange access to food supplement benefits, they included a funding limitation on the benefit during the biennial budget period ending June 30, 2015. That provision—which was never codified in statute—stated that the Department of Health and Human Services had $261,384 to spend during the biennium on this new category of benefits, and if that funding limit was met prior to June 30, 2015, individuals were “no longer eligible” to receive benefits provided pursuant to Paragraph D. The Department also adopted an agency rule which mirrored the language of the appropriations language in the budget.
While the funding limit in the biennial budget was merely an unallocated, temporal limitation applicable through the end of biennium, the Department interpreted the Legislature’s fiscal limitation as a permanent funding cap on Paragraph D benefits. Thus, when it met the $261,384 cap on January 17, 2014, the Department took the position that Paragraph D permanently “expired” and benefits available to those otherwise eligible under the provision were no longer available. So when the Department denied Mr. Manirakiza’s application for benefit in August 2015—a month into the new biennium—the Department cited exhaustion of available resources as a basis.
Rule 80C Petition to the Superior Court
On a challenge of the agency’s denial—which Mr. Manirakiza brought in conjunction with a class action and sought a declaration that the Department’s interpretation of the law as erroneous and directly conflicted with the Legislature’s stated directive that they provide food supplement benefits to unemployed asylum-seekers with work documentation—the Superior Court issued an order finding the funding limitation language in the 2014/2015 biennial budget created an ambiguity as to the permanence of Paragraph D, and it was reasonable for the Department to resolve this ambiguity by interpreting the legislation as providing for a permanent funding cap on Paragraph D benefits. In other words, the Superior Court upheld the Department’s interpretation of Paragraph D and denial of benefits on that basis.
On Appel to the Law Court
The matter was appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, sitting in its appellate capacity as the Law Court, by attorneys from Drummond Woodsum and Maine Equal Justice Partners in 2017. On appeal, Mr. Manirakiza sought—in part—reversal of the Superior Court’s order and a finding that the Department had unlawfully denied persons otherwise eligible pursuant to Paragraph D food supplement benefits since July 1, 2015. On January 23, 2018, the Law Court issued a decision granting Mr. Manirakiza’s request. See Manirakiza v. Dep’t of Health & Human Services, 2018 ME 10, — A.3d –.
While neither Mr. Manirakiza nor the Department argued that Paragraph D was ambiguous, the Law Court agreed with the Superior Court that the unallocated fiscal limit language in the 2014/2015 budget created an ambiguity in Paragraph D; however, it nonetheless found that the Department’s interpretation was not reasonable in light of the legislative history and evidence of legislative intent that Paragraph D survive beyond the biennial period. In coming to its decision, the Law Court looked to the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual for guidance on the interpretation of unallocated provisions of law. The Manual states:
Public law bills propose laws that affect all of the people of the State or all persons or things of a particular class. Since these bills affect the general law, the sections of a public law bill that are of general or long-lasting application are almost always allocated to the Maine Revised Statutes; that is, they are placed somewhere in the existing statutory framework. Temporary provisions of a public law bill or housekeeping provisions are usually not allocated to the statutes but are drafted as unallocated law and placed at the end of the bill (e.g., transition provisions, retroactivity clauses, appropriation and allocation clauses, effective date clauses and emergency clauses . . . ). An unallocated provision is law that is published in Laws of the State of Maine but is not included in the Maine Revised Statutes.
Office of the Revisor of Statutes, Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, pt. II, ch. 1, § 1(A) at 15 (1st ed. Oct. 1990, rev. Oct. 2016) (quoted at 2018 ME 10, ¶ 10)
The funding limitation that the Department argued eliminated the category of benefits available under Paragraph D was an unallocated provision of law; Paragraph D was an allocated provision codified in the Maine Revised Statutes. “The Legislature’s decision not to allocate the language to an existing statutory framework, however, indicates an intentional distinction between the nature of the two provisions,” the Court stated. 2018 ME 10, ¶ 12. “The Department’s contention that the provisions should ‘be given equal consideration’ does not comport with the meaningful distinction between allocated and unallocated law.” Id.
The Court also noted that the summary of the underlying legislation indicated an intent that Paragraph D be a permanent provision of law, which was consistent with the Legislature’s decision to codify that provision, but not the funding limitation. In rejecting suggestions by the Department otherwise, the Court stated that the agency’s interpretation was, “[i]f not absurd[,] . . . at least illogical.” 2018 ME 10, ¶ 14.
In its conclusion, the Law Court held that the Legislature intended Paragraph D be long-standing, and the unallocated funding limitation language in the budget document was merely a fiscal limitation that ended when the biennial budget did on June 30, 2015. Id. ¶ 15. Therefore, as of July 1, 2015, the Department was required to provide benefits to those eligible pursuant to Paragraph D, “in the same way that it must provide food assistance to those persons eligible under paragraphs (A), (B), and (C) of the same provision.” Id. Failure to do so was a dereliction of the law.
The decision means that the Department must provide food supplement benefits to persons eligible pursuant to Paragraph D, unless that provision is either amended or repealed by an act of the Maine Legislature. Advocates estimate that anywhere from 100-150 individuals will benefit from this ruling, which helps provide low-income families with basic nutrition and sustenance.
As for the legal community, the Law Court’s opinion in Manirakiza v. Dep’t of Health & Human Services highlights the important, though infrequently discussed, distinction between unallocated and allocated law. Unallocated provisions—which are not codified in Maine Revised Statutes—should only be used for appropriations, temporary measures, and to address “housekeeping” (rather than substantive) matters. If the intent of proposed legislation is to establish long-standing changes to the law, such provisions should be allocated in the Maine Revised Statutes. When we look at the importance of transparency and notice in government, this is a common sense rule of thumb to follow because, as the Law Court so aptly stated, “[t]hose who look to the Maine Revised Statutes—which are readily accessible and set forth as the law of our State—should not be required to look to the appropriations bills for each legislative session in which a statute was adopted or amended in order to determine whether a statutory provision, that is unambiguous on its face, may somehow contain a limitation buried in one of those appropriations bills, which only appropriate funds for limited time periods.” 2018 ME 10, ¶ 14.
In addition, while not addressed by the Law Court in the Manirakiza decision, the case nevertheless is a reminder that we are a government of checks and balances, one with three distinct branches with separate roles and authority: the legislature is charged with passing the laws, the executive is to enforce those laws, and the judiciary interprets the laws. This case serves as a practical example of how that system of checks and balances is carried out and should urge advocates to be mindful of constitutional grants of and limits on the powers of each branch, especially in times of deep political divide among them. Our system provides government agencies, like the Department of Health and Human Services, great discretion when interpreting the laws it is charged with administering, but that discretion does not extend to abrogating those laws, assuming the role and authority of the legislature.