Maine’s candidate for chief justice has won the trust of the legal community

Years before Justice Valerie Stanfill was appointed Supreme Justice of the state, she taught a trial practice course at the University of Maine Law School with Professor Deirdre Smith. They instructed future lawyers on how to question witnesses and present their case. Stanfill already had a reputation as a talented lawyer, and Smith recalled teaching students to be prepared and professional.

Superior Court Judge Valerie Stanfill, pictured in July 2017, said: “The most important thing we do as judges is not just to listen, but also to make sure people are safe. ‘have been heard. David Leaming / Morning Sentry

“She brought authenticity to her presence in the courtroom,” Smith said. “I don’t think people felt like she was putting on an entire character, an entire show. I think people felt they could trust him, both witnesses and jurors and judges.

Now Stanfill could be trusted to lead the courts in Maine. Governor Janet Mills appointed her Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine next Monday. In this role, she would sit on the state’s highest court of appeal and oversee the complex functioning of the judiciary. She would succeed Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who resigned last year to become the dean of the University of Maine law school.

People who have worked with Stanfill over her three decades as a lawyer and then as a judge have described her as intelligent, fair and compassionate. Although a spokeswoman for the judiciary said Stanfill would not be available for an interview, the application documents she submitted to the governor’s office informed her approach from the bench.

“Judging is not just about deciding cases,” she wrote. “On the contrary, we often try to help people find a solution. We are trying to effect behavior change. Sometimes we try to make a child’s world a better place, sometimes we try to deal with substance use disorders, sometimes we try to put people in touch with educational services, sometimes we just try to give back. a little safer world. The most important thing we do as judges is not only to listen, but also to make sure that people are sure that they have been heard.

Stanfill would step into this role at a critical time for the courts. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced operations and created a massive backlog for most types of cases. At the end of January 2020, before the pandemic, more than 17,000 criminal cases were pending in the courts of Maine. By the end of February 2021, that number had grown to over 27,000. Saufley described the challenge as the most urgent for his successor.

“It means people waited to be heard, waited for their day in court, waited for justice to be done in every type of case,” Saufley said. “And as we come out of the pandemic and are able to get people back to courthouses safely, the Chief Justice, along with the Head of the Trial, will need to determine how cases get resources to be heard.” quickly so that people feel that justice is being done. Finished.”

The pandemic has also added to existing challenges. The judiciary was already in the midst of a long-awaited shift from paper to electronic records, and COVID-19 forced courts to use technology they previously resisted. In his current role, Stanfill has chaired the Zoom Auditions. As Chief Justice, she would be part of the decisions about how much of this technology will remain when COVID-19 is less of a threat.

“Part of it is a role for the Chief Justice and the whole Court of Justice to be open to doing things differently than we have done in the past,” said Melissa Hewey, a lawyer who sits on the governor’s advisory committee for judicial appointments.

Stanfill, 63, was born in Huntington, New York, according to her mother’s obituary. His family lived in Connecticut, Massachusetts and then Maine. She now lives in Wayne, near Pocasset Lake, and the obituary describes family memories of listening to the loons call. She received her Bachelor of Arts in History from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1979, then graduated magna cum laude from the University of Maine School of Law in 1985.

The first 15 years of her career were spent in a law firm in Lewiston and then as a solo practitioner in Auburn. Her resume lists her experience in civil and criminal litigation and litigation, focusing on medical and professional negligence and personal injury. She started teaching at law school in 1999 and became the acting director of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic in 2001. Smith, who succeeded her in 2004 and still runs the clinic, said Stanfill was there. a legacy despite only a few years of work. . Under his leadership, law students began working with victims of domestic violence and incarcerated people in need of civilian legal aid, programs that continue today.

Stanfill served on the District Court of Maine from January 2007 to February 2020. Since then she has served on the Superior Court of Maine, presiding over the counties of Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin. District Attorney Andrew Robinson said lawyers appearing in her courtroom know they are ready because she has reportedly reviewed relevant case law and legislation.

“I never walked out of his courtroom with anything other than thinking it was right,” Robinson said. “I never left like, I don’t understand what just happened. It might not be what I was asking for, but I always understood his decisions and always felt they were based on law and fact.

Defense attorney Walt McKee shared this sentiment.

“I have appeared before her countless times and she has a perfect command of the law and the courtroom,” McKee said. “When Judge Stanfill was on the bench, you always knew two things: you had better prepare because she insisted, and you were always going to be quite shaken up.

Attorney General Aaron Frey credited Stanfill for her years on the Family Homicide Review Committee, and members of the legal community have described domestic violence as a particular area of ​​expertise for her. When applying for the job, Stanfill also identified this area in civil and criminal records as one of his skills, along with child protection issues and evidentiary issues. In one question, she had to identify what she believed to be the most significant cases in her career as a judge.

“In some ways, the most important cases I have presided over were cases in which children’s rights were at stake: child protection cases, including the removal of parental rights; child custody issues; and protection from abuse cases in which parents fight for their children, ”she wrote. “These cases are of critical importance not only to those involved, but also to the fabric and future of our society.”

Stanfill also mentioned high-profile cases from his time in Maine District Court. In one case, she ruled that applying retroactively a rule change for the sex offender registry to a man who has previously been convicted of rape was unconstitutional. The Supreme Judicial Court confirmed this decision in 2009. In another, she granted the Department of Health and Human Services the right to obtain a non-resuscitation order for a critically injured baby before the mother’s parental rights were terminated. The state ultimately said it would not enforce the order, and the mother’s appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed as moot in 2014. The legislature later promulgated a law this was in accordance with Stanfill’s decision.

“Other cases that I have chaired that have generated the most publicity – rightly or wrongly – include an order to euthanize a dangerous dog … and an order to return a library book to Lewiston,” Stanfill wrote.

In the first case, Stanfill ordered the euthanasia of a husky who was pardoned at the last minute by former Governor Paul LePage. In the second, she ordered Lewiston woman to return children’s library book on sex education. The woman wanted to prevent the children from reading it.

Stanfill is currently the appointed Superior Court judge in five homicide cases that are being pursued by the Maine attorney general’s office. These cases will be reassigned if confirmed.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine has seven members, including the Chief Justice. Cleaves Law Library Documents show that most of those appointed as Chief were initially associate judges, but at least two others in the history of the Court were not. The governor has an advisory board that reviews candidates for judicial appointments, and although their work is mostly confidential, members said Stanfill stands out for this role in part because of his trial experience and respected reputation. .

“I think she brings an intellectual capacity, experience and knowledge of the Maine justice system that will truly serve the state in the future,” said John Hobston, the lawyer who heads the advisory committee.

Two of the six current judges on the Supreme Judicial Court are women, but Stanfill is only the second woman to be appointed chief. Saufley was the first. The non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School recently published statistics on the racial, ethnic and sexual makeup of state supreme courts across the country. In 22 states, including Maine, all judges in these courts are white. In these courts, only 17% of judges are black, Latin American, Asian or Native American, even though people of color make up 40% of the population of the United States. Women hold 39% of state Supreme Court seats, up from 36% in 2019.

“One of the things we’re all looking to improve on in the future is more diversity, both gender, ethnicity and racial diversity, on the bench in Maine so that when people walk in in courtrooms across the state of Maine, they see people like themselves on the bench, ”Saufley said.

Stanfill indicated on her application that she is divorced and has no children. Spokesmen for the judiciary and the governor’s office did not respond to questions about Stanfill’s current salary or his expected salary if confirmed as chief justice. Stanfill will need to be confirmed by the Judicial Committee of the Legislative Assembly and the State Senate. His nomination hearing has yet to be set.

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