Anthony Kennedy’s retirement intensifies spotlight on Susan Collins

Good morning from Augusta. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his impending retirement on Wednesday, giving President Donald Trump his second high court pick and putting U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in the middle of the debate.

Democrats can’t do much to stop Republicans from appointing a replacement before the November midterm elections. In the big picture, Trump — who released an updated shortlist of potential appointees in 2017 — and fellow Republicans are seen as being overwhelmingly likely to get a conservative justice appointed.

The president got 54 votes in the Senate — more than he needed — to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch to the court last year. That came after Democrats tried to block the nomination. Senate Republicans then suspended the chamber’s rules to get rid of the 60-vote filibuster threshold, allowing Gorsuch to be confirmed along party lines. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican, backed her party through that process and voted to confirm Gorsuch.

While Collins and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski are the moderate Republicans to watch on this vote, three red-state Democrats — Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — voted for Gorsuch and are up for tough re-election races this year. This could simply be a 2017 repeat.

Collins previously criticized her party’s Senate leader for not allowing a Democratic nomination to move forward, but she isn’t likely to block this one. Democrats are painting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a hypocrite after he blocked former President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland, a moderate federal judge, arguing that it was too close to the presidential election to give Obama another nomination. Democrats are saying that now about the 2018 elections, but McConnell has vowed to hold a vote by fall.

His 2016 move proved canny and gave Republicans an extra nomination. But it didn’t necessarily look as brilliant at that time — when many thought that Trump would lose the presidential election to Democrat Hillary Clinton. He obviously did not.

Collins argued at that time that Garland deserved a vote. She told WGAN then that she was “perplexed” by McConnell’s position, saying that Clinton would likely nominate a more liberal judge than Garland and Trump was “unpredictable.” But so far, Trump has indicated a lean toward conventional conservative justices.

Kennedy has been largely conservative on the court, but he was a swing vote in favor of same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Trump’s new nominee could re-open the abortion fight. Collins supports both abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

On Wednesday, Collins told CBS News that she considers Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion federally, to be “settled law” and that she looks for judges “who respect precedent.” But she said she’ll also consider qualifications and temperament.

However, she also told NBC News that just as Republicans’ decision to not hold a hearing was bad, Democrats’ call to do the same for Kennedy’s replacement is also bad. We’ll see who the nominee is, but don’t bet on Collins to gum things up for Trump as of right now.

New leader picked for watchdog panel

A legislative analyst will take over as director of the Legislature’s investigative arm. The Legislature’s ethics watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, is about to lose its founding director, the highly respected Beth Ashcroft, who has announced she will leave the position in August.

On Tuesday, legislative leaders voted unanimously to hire Ashcroft’s replacement and it’s a familiar face. Danielle Fox, who has been an analyst for the Legislature’s Office of Policy and Legal Analysis since 1998, will take over OPEGA after Ashcroft’s departure. Fox has spent most of her career at the State House focused on the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

Fox, who studied political science at the University of Maine and policy analysis at the Muskie School of Public Service, said she has “big shoes to fill” but is excited about the opportunity.

Reading list

  • Maine ethics watchdogs slashed what could be the final payments to taxpayer-funded candidates and advocates say they’ll sue. Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to sign routine financial orders and opposition from legislative Republicans to a bill letting the Maine Ethics Commission to spend allocated money after July 1 — have the Clean Election system on the ropes. Now, 120 gubernatorial and legislative candidates are owed $1.4 million under the program, but the commission can only spend $390,000. Accordingly, commissioners voted on Wednesday to reduce allocations to candidates by 72 percent across the board. Maine Citizens for Clean Elections said in a press advisory that they’ll sue the state to release funds today.
  • A federal judge ruled that the president’s defunct voter fraud commission must surrender documents to Maine’s secretary of state. It’s the second win in court for Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat who served on Trump’s voter fraud commission before it was disbanded in early 2018. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that Dunlap is to be given access to all papers and documents from the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity by July 18 after he argued that he had been shut out from the panel’s work.
  • It wasn’t a bird; it was planes. some in and around Bangor on Wednesday were jolted by two waves of jet noises from the sky — once around 4 a.m. and again between 6:30 and 7 a.m. Aviation watchers said that they were nine F-16 fighter jets returning from Belgium.

Happy Paul Bunyan Day reports that today is a “giant” of a holiday in honor of the mythical and gigantic lumberjack from American Folklore, and his blue ox Babe. Maine has a special place for Bunyan — namely Bangor, where there is a giant statue of him — but it’s not without controversy. Minnesota thinks it has a monopoly on Bunyan as its hero, but we obviously disagree.

The website suggests celebrating today’s holiday by sitting around a campfire and telling your favorite Bunyan stories. You’ll need a soundtrack for that, so here y’go. — Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at, or

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.