The Law Court yesterday issued an interesting decision in the ongoing ranked choice voting litigation that will have a broad application to appeals of final agency actions under M.R. Civ. P. 80C.  The decision clarifies when an automatic stay of a Superior Court judgment enters in a Rule 80C action.  The answer, somewhat counterintuitively, is that a judgment reversing an agency action is automatically stayed even though a judgment affirming an agency action is not.

In Jones v. Secretary of State, petitioners appealed the determination of the Secretary of State that there were insufficient signatures to place a people’s veto of a law implementing ranked choice voting for presidential primaries and elections onto the November ballot.  Petitioners won in the Superior Court, with the court issuing an order reversing the Secretary of State’s determination.  Given pressing deadlines for preparing the ballot, the question then became whether the decision was automatically stayed under Rule 62(e) – leaving the erroneous agency determination in effect – or whether the Secretary had to seek a stay under Rule 62(g) pending a decision on the merits from the Law Court.  In a per curiam decision, the Law Court held that the Superior Court’s decision was automatically stayed.

Rule 62(e) provides that – with certain exceptions, including appeals from an order relating to injunctive relief – “the taking of an appeal from a judgment shall operate as a stay of execution upon the judgment during the pendency of the appeal.”  Twice before, a Superior Court justice had held that this rule did “not apply orders issued by the Superior Court on administrative appeals pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 80C.”  This approach brought some consistency to the application of stays during agency appeals.  Under 5 M.R.S. § 11004, filing a petition for review of a final agency action does not automatically stay that action.   Thus, neither an agency decision nor a judgment of the Superior Court in an agency appeal would be automatically stayed.

The Law Court rejected this approach.  The Law Court had previously held that judgments affirming an agency decision were not automatically stayed, because (1) review of an order affirming an agency action is effectively review of the agency action itself, and agency actions are not judgments upon which execution may issue; and (2) it would make “little sense to read Rule 62(e) to entitle a litigant to an automatic stay of an agency action pending appeal in the Law Court, but not during review by the Superior Court.”  Nevertheless, the Court held in Jones that a judgment reversing an agency action is a judgment subject to Rule 62(e).

Ultimately, the key lesson is that, if a party prevails in the Superior Court in a challenge to an agency action, that party should seek an order for immediate execution under Rule 62(c) if time is of the essence.  Otherwise, the Superior Court’s judgment will be stayed pending appeal.