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Courts and Crime

Rick Lawrence recommended to be the first Black justice on Maine’s highest court

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Kevin Miller
/
Maine Public
District Court Judge Rick Lawrence speaks to members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Friday during his confirmation hearing for a seat on Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court.

A legislative committee voted unanimously Friday to endorse veteran Judge Rick Lawrence's nomination to Maine's highest court, setting the stage for a historic appointment.

It's been almost 22 years to the day that Rick Lawrence became the first Black judge appointed to a court in Maine. In the more than two decades since, Lawrence has presided over District Court cases in Androscoggin and western Maine counties in a way that his supporters say was firm but fair as well as compassionate and understanding.

"He became known as the judge that you wanted to get if you could because he could handle the most complex matter and understand the argument,” said John Hobson, who serves as chairman of Gov. Janet Mills' Judicial Nominations Advisory Committee. Like several of the speakers before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Friday, Hobson alluded to the historic nature of Lawrence's potential appointment but spent most of his time extolling Lawrence's integrity, intellect and legal skills.

But perhaps most importantly, Hobson added, Lawrence would bring “a demonstrated commitment, maybe even a passion, for justice for all of the citizens of the state of Maine."

The 66-year-old Lawrence was born in Massachusetts to working parents who never attended college. Speaking to lawmakers, Lawrence said his parents always encouraged education and pushed him to pursue his goals despite the prejudices of people who said he couldn't do something because of his color. And it was during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Lawrence said, that he first became interested in the law as he watched court battles over laws that affected him and other people of color.

"Those events shaped my impression of lawyers and the courts, and fostered my view of both as forces that could play a positive role in people's lives,” Lawrence said. “My interest in the law and thoughts of maybe someday becoming a lawyer grew out of those roots."

Lawrence acknowledged that he has had a "somewhat circuitous path to the bench" following his graduation from Harvard Law School as he worked as in corporate and regulatory law. But he said that professional experience, combined with his life experience, provided him with unique perspectives that influenced his work as a judge. But he also believes his years dealing with family law, and with domestic violence cases, would help him to fill the vacancy being created by the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Ellen Gorman, who has served as the Law Court's liaison to the family division within District Court.

Kirsten Skorpen, a licensed master social worker from Woolwich, saw Lawrence's work first-hand for years when she worked as the family division resource coordinator that that family division within the District Court. Skorpen said that Lawrence took on an enormous role in chairing a special advisory committee dealing with complex family issues – an effort that she added he was chosen to lead because of his reputation and judicial approach.

"Every person in Judge Lawrence's court is treated with profound respect and given time for their voices to be heard, even when it the voice of the enraged, the bereft or the whispered voice of a child in crisis,” Skorpen said. “Judge Lawrence is one of the finest and keenest listeners I have ever known."

Lawrence's nomination to the Law Court is also supported by the Maine Trial Lawyers Association as well as the Maine State Bar Association, whose president said that in 2020 attorneys rated him as one of the best judges in the state of Maine.

No one spoke against Lawrence's nomination, and Judiciary Committee members were deferential to the judge. The committee ultimately voted 10-0, with four members absent, to recommend his appointment to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The committee vote came just one day after another historic moment in the nation's legal history when Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lawrence only touched on the historic nature of his potential appointment briefly when he noted that, in 2000, he had the "distinct privilege" of being the first Black person appointed to the bench in Maine by then governor and now U.S. Sen. Angus King.

"In 2022, I would be both humbled and extraordinarily honored to the first African American appointed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court,” Lawrence said.

The Maine Senate will likely take up the recommendation next week.