AUGUSTA — One hundred twenty-five years after he was appointed chief justice of the United States, Melville Weston Fuller returned to his birthplace Wednesday.
A bronze statue of him seated and robed and looking much like Mark Twain now sits on the front lawn of the Kennebec County Courthouse, welcoming all.
Fuller, who was born in Augusta and sworn in to the bar inside the courthouse, was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Grover Cleveland in 1888 and spent more than 21 years as the nation’s top judge, before dying at age 77 on July 4, 1910.
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who stood by as the statue was placed, described Fuller as “an Augusta boy made good, clearly” and praised his administrative skills and emphasis on collegiality among the justices of the court.
However, she also noted that he signed on to “one of the most reviled decisions,” the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, which established the “separate but equal” doctrine based on race.
“This is a good reminder that respected, capable people can do something that is so flatly wrong,” she said.
The decision was overturned in 1954 by the court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
The statue, a gift of retired attorney and Fuller descendant Robert Fuller, was sculpted by Forest Hart, of Monroe, and ferried by crane from a pickup truck bed to rest on a tall pedestal. The placement work closed State Street to traffic for about two hours Wednesday morning.
From his perch, Melville Weston Fuller welcomes visitors to the historic courthouse, assuring them “Justice is the guardian of liberty” — but in Latin.
The memorial was added as a new courthouse rises behind the historic granite building.
“It’s Melville Weston Fuller’s Day, not mine,” Robert Fuller said, as he watched the statue being lowered into place.
A couple of blocks away, the Fuller-Weston House at 11 Summer St., now the rectory of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, is on the National Register of Historic Places, partly because of Fuller.
The home was built by Henry Weld Fuller, a prominent lawyer who eventually was appointed judge of probate in Kennebec County. It was later sold to Nathan Weston, an associate and later chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Fuller’s son and Weston’s daughter were Melville Weston Fuller’s parents.
Awaiting the bronze jurist’s arrival Wednesday were Saufley and her predecessor in that role, Daniel Wathen, of Augusta.
In fact, the sculptor used one of Wathen’s robes as a model for Fuller’s.
“His robe drove me nuts with all the wrinkles in it,” Hart said. “That was the hardest part.”
The sculptor said he also had to design it so rain would run off and not pool on the statue.
Melville Weston Fuller looks diminutive — accurately reflecting his 5-foot-1 height — as he sits in the wooden, leather-padded chair, each of the slim four legs ending in a caster.
The donation by Robert Fuller was approved by the Kennebec County Commissioners about 18 months ago. Fuller provided all the funding for the estimated $40,000 project cost.
Hart worked with Tony Masciadri of S. Masciadri & Sons in Hallowell, who obtained the granite base and oversaw the installation.
Betty Adams — 621-5631