ALFRED — Make no mistake about the blue SUV with the bumper stickers in back and surfboards on top, parked outside York County Superior Court in the space reserved for the judge.

It’s in the right spot. It belongs to Justice John O’Neil Jr., one of two judges regularly assigned to one of the state’s busiest courthouses. When O’Neil dons his black robes, he sometimes presides over 125 cases a day. But when court is out, he surfs.

Scan the parking lot, and you’ll see he’s not alone. There are other surfers in that courthouse: Prosecutor John Connelly owns 10 boards and often has dried saltwater in his hair. His frequent courtroom opponent, defense attorney Rick Winling, had a new wide shortboard with him last week that he was waiting for just the right surf day to test.

“You come to the York County Superior Court, you look out in the parking lot and on any given day there could be as many as six cars with surfboards on the top,” O’Neil said during a lunch-hour interview in his judge’s chambers.

“I always have the boards on the roof of the car because I never know when I’m going to be able to get out when the surf is good. I have a paddle board, so I can go even when there aren’t any waves.”

But even O’Neil, who has been surfing for most of his life, doesn’t know exactly why so many lawyers at the courthouse in the landlocked town of Alfred are drawn to the sport.


“It’s not any different than going to a courthouse and seeing 11 lawyers with golf clubs in the back of their car. They all golf. They probably see each other at the golf course and everybody says hello. That’s kind of the same thing with all of us surfers,” O’Neil said. “I have no idea where any of these guys live. I just know that when I go to the beach, they’re there once in a while. We say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ But surfing, by its nature, is kind of a solitary activity, anyway.”

O’Neil, 53, started surfing as a lifeguard growing up in Old Orchard Beach, where his parents owned a motel on East Grand Avenue. He rode the waves on a lifeguard’s giant rescue board before graduating to an actual surfboard.

He kept at it through law school at Suffolk University, but stopped for about a decade after being admitted to practice law in Maine in 1986. He gradually got back into surfing and has been devoted to the sport ever since.


“I’m really not that great of a surfer. I’m really an intermediate surfer even though I’ve been doing it a long time,” he said. “Surfing is one of those sports that it’s similar to skiing. You can have a really great time doing it whether you are a beginner on the bunny trail or you’re someone who does the double black diamonds.”

While most judges keep their personal lives private, O’Neil said he agreed to talk about surfing because he feels it’s important for people to know that judges are real people, not distant and aloof individuals living in mansions.


Jim Burke, who teaches at the University of Maine School of Law, said he sees no ethical problem with a judge and lawyers who appear in his courtroom participating in a sport together.

“It has nothing to do with work. If they don’t talk about work, no problem,” Burke said. “Judges have become more cautious about people thinking they might be doing something wrong and they lead more monastic lives. I don’t think that’s a good thing.”

O’Neil said that in addition to surfing, he plays ice hockey in an adult men’s league two or three nights a week, gesturing to the framed hockey team photos hanging on his chamber walls.

“I play hockey in Biddeford. Five hundred guys know I’m a judge. I sent a bunch of them to jail for relatively minor things. I’ve sent many of their family members and such. So everybody knows that when I’m there. It’s not any great big secret,” he said.

O’Neil said that parking in front of the county courthouse is a different experience from being a federal judge driving into a guarded and gated lot. He said he walks into the building each morning through the same door as the defendants, jurors, lawyers, police officers and general citizens.

“One of the good ways of being able to determine if your temperament is what it should be on the bench is whether you would be embarrassed to walk through that same group of people to go get lunch from your car,” he said.


Winling, the defense attorney, said he’s been out on the water on his board waiting to catch the next wave and seen both current and former clients in the lineup beside him.

“When I’m out there, there is nothing else I am focused on. It’s like a moving meditation,” said Winling, who at 46 has been surfing for 12 years. “When I get out of the water, it’s a kind of happy exhaustion. It’s hard to explain.”

Connelly, who works for the York County District Attorney’s Office, has been surfing since 1987, only one year less than he’s been a lawyer.

“For people who take to surfing, it can become the focus, the core of your life. For me, it’s been 27 years,” said Connelly, 54. “It can be so many different things. It can be beautiful. It can be frightening. It can be calm. It can be exciting.”


As O’Neil put it, asking someone what’s so great about surfing is like asking why vanilla ice cream tastes good.

“You kind of know why, but you can’t put it into words,” O’Neil said. “Everybody who surfs a lot describes it as surf therapy. No matter what kind of mood you are in when you go into the water, you come out two hours later – you’re exhausted, you’re in a great mood, you’re happy and that’s true of everyone I know who does it.”

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