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Janet Mills’ nominee would be 1st Black jurist on Maine's highest court

Judge Rick Lawrence
Judge Rick Lawrence

Gov. Janet Mills nominated longtime judge Rick Lawrence to serve on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Monday in what would be a historic appointment to the state's highest court.

Lawrence has served as a District Court judge since 2000 but would be the first black jurist to hold a seat on Maine's Law Court if his nomination is confirmed by the state Senate. Mills nominated the 66-year-old Portland resident to fill the seat currently held by Justice Ellen Gorman, who is retiring after 15 years.

“Judge Lawrence’s extensive legal experience, measured temperament, strong intellect, and proven commitment to upholding the law and administering justice impartially make him an exceptional candidate for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court,” Mills said in a statement. “I am honored to nominate him and believe his service on our highest court will greatly benefit the people of Maine.”

In the two decades since his appointment in 2000 by former Gov. Angus King, Lawrence has presided over District Court cases for Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties. He was also named deputy chief judge of district courts in Maine in 2020, served as the presiding judge in Androscoggin County’s Unified Criminal Docket’s Domestic Violence Judicial Monitoring Program and chaired a judicial advisory committee on children and families.

"It's a wonderful thing that the person nominated is Judge Rick Lawrence, who is just a terrific judge,” said former Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who now serves as dean of the University of Maine School of Law.

Saufley said she has known Lawrence since his appointment to the bench 22 years ago and is pleased to see him put forward for the high court. Saufley said he would bring with him the broad experience gained from decades of handling what she called a "huge swath of human life" that comes before District Courts, whether that is criminal cases, family or housing law or neighborly disputes.

But Saufley also said it is "relatively astounding" that it has taken until 2022 to see a black person nominated to serve on the Law Court. She herself made history as the state's first woman chief justice and she said while progress is being made, it is taking some time to move in that direction.

"We are now seeing diversity on the bench in greater numbers than we have seen in the past but we have such a need for greater diversity so the bench reflects the people who come to our courts,” Saufley said.

Sarah Mitchell, a family law attorney based in Lewiston, has appeared before Lawrence many times since she began practicing in 2002. Mitchell said it refreshing to know that a judge with Lawrence's temperament, reputation and extensive knowledge could be on the bench given how many family law cases end up being appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court. Lawrence has “really lived it,” Mitchell said, through his time on the District Court bench.

"To have that perspective as he reviews these cases and potentially makes new law, or upholds prior cases is somewhat comforting, to know that somebody that has really been there will know what's best in shaping things going forward,” said Mitchell, who is president of the firm Skelton Taintor & Abbott.

Lawrence’s nomination also comes at a time when the United State Senate is considering the nomination of the first black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Asha Echeverria, a Portland-based attorney at Bernstein Shur, serves on the Maine State Bar Association's board of governors and is a member of a special section within the association for lawyers who are black, indigenous or people of color. Echeverria never had an opportunity to appear before Lawrence in court but says his reputation and distinguished career speak to his qualifications for the Law Court.

Echeverria also saw the nomination as another positive sign that the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are becoming more important in the legal profession, in business and throughout Maine society.

"This nomination and hopefully prompt confirmation is just another encouraging step in the change I have been seeing in our state since I moved here 15 years ago,” Echeverria said. “So I think it is another exciting movement forward for Maine."

If he is endorsed by the Legislature's Judiciary Committee and confirmed by the Maine Senate, Lawrence would fill the seat being vacated by retiring Justice Ellen Gorman. He would also be among just a handful of judges who have advanced to Maine's highest bench directly from the District Court rather than from the Superior Court.

“I am deeply honored by Governor Mills’ nomination to serve on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, a nomination that comes with formidable responsibility and unparalleled opportunity to serve the people of our great state,” Lawrence said in a statement released by the governor’s office. “If confirmed by the Legislature, I promise to work tirelessly to serve the people of Maine and to administer justice fairly and impartially to the people of Maine, just as they deserve.”

In a January letter to Mills expressing interest in the Law Court position, Lawrence also noted that his experience in family law would help him to fill the void created by the departure of Gorman, who has for years served as the Law Court's liaison to the family division within District Court.

Lawrence did not mention the historic nature of his potential ascension to the Law Court in that letter. But in a June 2020 article in the Bangor Daily News, Lawrence said it took 180 years after Maine's achieved statehood for the first black person to be appointed to a judicial bench. Noting that it had been another 20 years since then without subsequent appointments, Lawrence said he hoped it wouldn't be another 160 years before another person of color becomes a jurist in Maine.