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Politics

Maine Senate approves Rick Lawrence as first Black member of state’s highest court

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Judge Rick Lawrence

The Maine Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday to confirm Rick Lawrence’s nomination to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in a historic first for state’s highest court.

Lawrence, 66, will become Maine’s first Black justice on the Supreme Judicial Court. The Senate’s 33-0 confirmation vote came 22 years and one week after Lawrence made history as the first Black judge in Maine with his appointment to the District Court. Lawrence has presided over District Court cases in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties and has served as deputy chief judge for the district courts in Maine since 2020. He has also 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.

A Massachusetts native, Lawrence graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School before working for years as an attorney in Portland in the corporate and regulatory sectors, including as vice president and managing counsel at UNUM Provident Life Insurance Company. He was nominated to the District Court in 2000 by then-governor and now U.S. Sen. Angus King. He will replace a vacant seat on Maine’s highest court created by the retirement of Associate Justice Ellen Gorman.

During his confirmation hearing last week, Lawrence told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee that he first became interested in the legal field after watching the court battles that played out during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

"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."

Most of Lawrence’s comments and those made by the numerous people who spoke on his behalf last week focused on his work at the District Court and his reputation as a judge who was firm but fair, compassionate and highly experienced, particularly when it came to family law issues. Gorman has served as the Supreme Judicial Court’s liaison with the family division of the District Court, and Lawrence said he hopes to help fill that gap after Gorman’s retirement.

In a statement released by Gov. Janet Mills’ office, Lawrence said he was honored by the appointment.

“I am deeply honored by the opportunity to serve on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, an appointment that comes with formidable responsibility and unparalleled opportunity to serve the people of our great state,” Lawrence said. “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.”

Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, said that as someone who was adopted and part of “the system,” he was particularly pleased to see Lawrence’s “experience in a part of law that is near and dear to my heart.”

“It brings joy to my heart to know that Governor Mills heard the appeal, chose an excellent candidate that we are about to vote on and my parents are smiling down from heaven,” said Hickman, who is the first Black legislator in Maine to serve in both the House and Senate.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, said he has practiced before Lawrence on several cases.

“I can tell you with first-hand assurance his hard work, his thoughtfulness, his compassion for people on all sides of legal issues,” Baldacci said. “His appointment today is a blessing for the state of Maine and it is a good day for all of us to celebrate.”

Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, recalled having Lawrence as a teacher during one of his courses on the district courts.

“I certainly learned a lot from Judge Lawrence in that capacity and I know he is incredibly well regarded in the Maine Bar and on the bench, and I look forward to seeing the incredible things he is going to do in his continued service to the people of Maine on Maine’s highest court,” Stewart said.

While nominating him for the Law Court last month, Mills praised Lawrence for his “extensive legal experience, measured temperament, strong intellect, and proven commitment to upholding the law and administering justice impartially.”

Following the Senate vote, Mills escorted Lawrence to the chamber of the Maine House, where he also received a standing ovation from lawmakers.