District Court Judge Rick E. Lawrence has been nominated by Gov. Janet Mills to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the Press Herald reports. If confirmed, he will become the first Black justice in the 202-year history of the state’s highest court.
“The fact that Gov. Mills has nominated the first judge of color to the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine has to be one of the first things we all talk about,” Leigh Saufley, former chief justice for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and dean of the University of Maine School of Law said.
“Judges should reflect the population of the people that make up the state of Maine,” Saufley added. “It has taken us quite some time in Maine to get to the point where the bench really is truly beginning to reflect the diversity of Maine.”
With over 20 years of experience as a judge and a graduate of Harvard Law School and Yale University., Lawrence has served as deputy chief judge of Maine’s District Courts since April 2020. During his tenure, he’s presided over courts in Androscoggin, Oxford, and Franklin counties, as well as court programs specializing in domestic violence monitoring and foreclosure diversion. Additionally, he chaired the Judicial Branch Advisory Committee on Children and Families, which created a guardian ad litem program for Maine that ensured legal representation for children who enter the court system, and he has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine School of Law.
In his Jan. 7 application to the governor’s office seeking to fill the seat of retiring Justice Ellen Gorman, Lawrence wrote that he hopes to “ensure that the vitally important work of the District Court, especially the child protective, family matters, juvenile, and protection from abuse and harassment cases, continues to be given the attention it deserves from the highest court in the State of Maine.”
“The District Courts in the state of Maine encompass a huge swath of human life—family law, housing, disputes among neighbors, cases involving domestic violence,” he added. “Practicing in the District Courts requires lawyers to have very good on-their-feet skills.”
According to a 2021 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and policy institute at the New York University School of Law, Maine was one of 28 states in the country that have no Black State Supreme Court justices.
“It really is a significant milestone,” Alicia Bannon, director of the Brennan Center’s Judiciary Program noted. “I think it really builds public confidence in the judicial system, so everybody that’s stepping through the court system sees a judiciary with members who reflect the diversity of all the communities that are being impacted by the decisions the court makes.”
His nomination will need to be approved by the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary and the Maine Senate.