Gov. Paul LePage’s attorney is urging a federal court to toss out House Speaker Mark Eves’ appeal of his lawsuit against the governor, saying the issue should be settled in the political arena.

In a response filed Friday in the U.S. Court of Appeals, attorney Patrick Strawbridge argues that a U.S. District Court judge correctly dismissed Eves’ claims in a retaliation case Eves sought after losing a job at Good Will-Hinckley, a nonprofit that operates a charter school. That judge found LePage was entitled to “qualified immunity” and that the governor’s actions were protected as free speech under the First Amendment.

“This court should affirm the judgment below and put an end to the Speaker’s attempt to have the federal courts referee an inherently political dispute between the leaders of two independent branches of state government,” Strawbridge wrote in a 61-page response to Eves’ appeal.

An attorney for Eves, D-North Berwick, countered Monday that LePage’s “continuing pattern of lawless conduct makes it essential for the federal courts to hold him accountable for his blatant violations of the constitutional and civil rights of Maine people.” The First Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to hold a hearing on the case in October.

“On appeal, Governor LePage has doubled down on his extreme claim that he has the absolute right to insist on loyalty to his political party as a condition of state funding for all private organizations,” attorney David Webbert said in a statement. “LePage’s unprecedented theory of sweeping executive powers poses a direct threat to the Maine Constitution and its system of checks and balances on the power of a governor. It also threatens to destroy the independence of Maine’s nonpartisan, private organizations.”

Eves filed suit against LePage in July 2015 alleging that the Republican governor used taxpayer money and his office to prevent Eves from being hired as president of Good Will-Hinckley. The nonprofit’s board offered Eves the job in June 2015 but rescinded the offer roughly two weeks later after LePage blasted his hiring and threatened to withhold future state funding for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences charter school operated by Good Will-Hinckley.

Eves and his attorney responded by accusing the governor of “blackmailing” the school for at-risk students and filed the lawsuit alleging LePage’s action violated the Democrat’s rights to free speech and political affiliation as well as his right to due process.

U.S. District Judge George Z. Singal dismissed Eves’ lawsuit in May.

Eves “urges this court to conclude that an act by (LePage) to withhold discretionary funds from (Good Will-Hinckley) would have amounted to a form of punishment for employing (Eves) as president,” Singal wrote at the time. “However, (Eves) has not presented, nor has the court found, any legal authority that concludes that impoundment of discretionary funds is equivalent to more traditional punishments that may be levied against an entity such as a fine or the loss of an operating license.”

Singal also wrote that the courts have traditionally found that political disputes are best settled at the ballot box rather than in courtrooms.

In his response to the appeal, LePage’s attorney called Eves’ legal arguments “disjointed and cursory” and accuses the House Speaker of “mischaracterizing the District Court’s decision on (Maine Tort Claims Act) immunity.”

In further defending LePage’s communications with Good Will-Hinckley officials, Strawbridge pointed to past court decisions saying that public officials have a right to speak out against policy issues – in this case, Eves’ employment at a nonprofit that runs a charter school. As a legislator, Eves had raised concerns about charter schools – a fact seized on by LePage – but said after his hiring that his experience with and commitment to helping at-risk children outweighed those concerns.

“None of the Governor’s statements about the Speaker’s qualifications, political goals, opposition to charter schools, or unsuitability for the job can serve as the basis of a retaliation claim,” Strawbridge wrote in his court filing. “They constitute core government speech and are non-actionable as a matter of law. If it were otherwise, litigants could influence their elected officials’ ability to speak about matters of public concern.”

Webbert said Eves was looking forward to the October hearing.

“The governor also continues to make the dangerous argument that his actions – blackmailing a private, social services organization for at-risk students by withholding state funds of over $1,000,000 – are above the law and cannot be reviewed by a court,” Webbert said. “Because of the importance of this case to protecting the freedom and civil rights of all Maine citizens, Speaker Eves continues to pursue this case vigorously.”