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Panel Postpones Vote on District Court Judge's Reappointment

A.J. Higgins
District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz.

AUGUSTA, Maine - A Maine district court judge who found himself in the media spotlight earlier this year after imposing a gag order on journalists in his courtroom will have to wait until next week to find out if his reappointment wins committee approval.

District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz was alternately described by his supporters as fair, articulate, patient, respectful, professional and deliberate during a confirmation hearing before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee. Moskowitz himself acknowledged some missteps.

"Like all people, I make my fair share of mistakes, some of the mistakes are somewhat minor and some of them are not," Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz's not-so-minor mistake made headlines in January when he was forced to apologize to journalists in his courtroom after he ordered them not to report on statements made against a Standish lawyer facing domestic violence charges. During those proceedings, damaging testimony was offered against the lawyer and Moskowitz ordered journalists in his courtroom not to report it.

The gag order was ignored and the stories were published, triggering a backlash against Moskowtiz by First Amendment and government transparency advocates. Moskowitz later apologized to the reporters, and pointed out to the Judiciary Committee reviewing his reappointment that he did try to correct the mistake.

"It was an order that I issued at the end of a very long day and it was a clear error," Moskowitz said. "Fortunately I had the opportunity on my own to correct that error very shortly after it was made and before any significant harm was done, and I've sincerely regretted making that mistake."

"We all make mistakes. How do you deal with it?" said Michael Welch, president of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association. Welch said his organization endorsed Moskowitz's reappointment because of his outstanding abilities as a judge. "And we were very satisfied that this one incident was not a representation of the body of work that Judge Moskowitz has provided over his career as a judge."

Welch says that a survey of attorneys appearing before Moskowitz produced an overwhelming number of positive responses, describing the judge as intelligent, patient and impartial. There were four people who told the committee that they opposed Moskowitz largely for reasons associated with cases involving themselves.

State Sen. David Dutremble, a Biddeford Democrat, says he had been approached by a number of people with complaints about Moskowitz and got no assistance from the Administrative Office of the Courts or the governor's office when he tried to investigate those complaints. Dutremble was critical of the politics involved in judicial appointments.

"Attempts to escape politics inevitably result in heeding the advice of a narrow group of decision makers that express the opinions of special interests of segments. In Maine, the segment that votes on the judge is the bar - especially those members who are actively political within the bar," Dutremble said. "The public and the 'pro se' users are excluded from the process."

Following the hearing, members of the Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to postpone a vote on the confirmation, pending review of the written comments submitted.