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LePage's Top Judicial Nominees Win Panel's Unanimous Approval

Mal Leary

A Maine legislative panel today took up Gov. Paul LePage's nominees for top judicial appointments. The governor has frequently turned to Republican ideologues or like-minded business conservatives when searching for people to fill a variety of posts in Maine state government. But the chief executive deviates from that practice when it comes to judicial nominees.

  LePage tends to lean heavily on his Judicial Selection Committee that screens potential candidates on a wide variety of qualities, including experience, knowledgeability and temperament. Political leanings don't appear to matter.  And that works in the governor's favor.

LePage feels most comfortable around those who share his Republican ideology and conservative business background. More than once he has turned to the conservative think tank, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, when trying to fill leadership roles in various state departments.

He chose Mary Mayhew, the chief lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association to head the Department of Health and Human Services. And in choosing Patty Aho to oversee the Department of Environmental Protection, he opted for a woman whose last duties included lobbying for the chemical industry.

But when it comes to judicial nominations, LePage checks his ideology at the door. It's a practice that Democratic Rep. Charles Priest says has repeated itself again and again. "I think the governor's been wise in following the selections of his judicial selection committee," Priest says.

Priest is the House chair of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee. His panel meets to review LePage's nominations for the Supreme Court and the Superior Court. While other governors have advanced candidates in the past that were perceived by some lawmakers as largely political, Priest, a Brunswick lawyer, says LePage doesn't do that. He turns, instead, to the Judicial Selection Committee, a six-member panel of lawyers and prosecutors who are focused on maintaining the integrity of the state's judicial bench.

"And the Judicial Selection Committee has not only people that the governor has put on, but also he's maintained at least one, if not more, of the people that were under Gov. Baldacci's Judicial Selection Committee," Priest says, "and the governor's been wise, I think, in following their recommendations."

Credit Mal Leary
Judge Jeffrey Hjelm, who has won a legislative panel's endorsement to be promoted to the Maine Supreme Court.

"I think the governor has made it a priority to separate politics from the selection process, and his charge to the committee - his charge to me - was, 'Give me the best qualified people and I'm going to interview them and I'm going to make my selection,' " says former House Republican Leader Josh Tardy,

Tardy is now a lawyer who serves as chair of the governor's Judicial Selection Committee. Tardy says the pool of judicial candidates vying for a spot as a District Court judge, Superior Court justice or the Maine Supreme Court tend to be a competitive group who frequently have reached a point in their careers where they desire to move into the fact-finding realm of the legal profession. Younger lawyers, he says, are building careers and would effectively have to take a pay cut to serve on the bench, where salaries average in the $120,000 range.

"We've been really fortunate on the Judicial Selection Committee, have great applications, every process has been a very competitive process and the winners, so to speak, are those who have great work ethic, great reputations, and I think they're going to serve the people of Maine well on the bench," Tardy says.

In fact, to underscore LePage's desire to place competence before politics in the courts, the governor went to the other side of the aisle in nominating longtime Deputy Attorney General William Stokes as a Superior Court justice. The chief of the state's criminal division discussed his political background with the committee.

"I am a registered Democrat and I am serving as mayor of Augusta," Stokes said. In fact, as mayor, Stokes has publicly opposed the governor over General Assistance.

No one spoke against Stokes' nomination, or against Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Hjelm's promotion to the Maine Supreme Court. Hjelm was first nominated to the Superior Court by Gov. Angus King in 1998, and reappointed by Gov. John Baldacci in 2005.

And, in an increasingly rare show of bipartisanship in Augusta, Democrats showed how confident they were in the nominees when they issued a press release announcing the Judiciary Committee's unanimous approval of the two just moments after it happened.

Both nominations are scheduled to be up for confirmation votes before the Maine Senate July 31.