Three more attorneys came forward Monday to oppose the renomination of District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz, joining a Portland attorney who wrote a letter last week calling for the judge’s removal from the bench.

Initially, the letter from Matthew Nichols was the lone attorney’s voice of dissent, countering about a dozen members of Maine’s bar who testified Thursday during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Gov. Paul LePage’s renomination of Moskowitz for a second term as a judge.

The three attorneys have since said they agree with Nichols’ assessment that Moskowitz is “not a good judge” and oppose his renomination. The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet again Tuesday night to vote on whether to recommend Moskowitz’s renomination to the Senate for final approval.

“I don’t think it’s fair that (Nichols) should be out there with a big bull’s-eye on his back,” said Augusta attorney Darrick Banda.

Moskowitz’s renomination has been polarizing in part because of an illegal order he issued in January at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland to prohibit the media from reporting testimony during a domestic violence case in which a prominent criminal defense attorney was a defendant. Moskowitz rescinded his gag order and apologized two days later, after the Portland Press Herald defied his ruling and published the alleged victim’s testimony.

Members of the Judiciary Committee heard two hours of testimony Thursday, but delayed taking a vote until this week to allow members to read through a stack of submitted written testimony. Several people who aren’t lawyers testified against Moskowitz at the hearing, and about two dozen non-lawyers filed written opposition. But until Monday, most lawyers appeared to support Moskowitz.

Banda, Portland attorney Seth Berner and Biddeford attorney William Bly said that Moskowitz, as a former prosecutor, has shown a clear bias toward the prosecution in criminal cases and sometimes a disregard for the law. They said many other members of the defense bar agree with them, but won’t speak out for fear of repercussions.

“I need to make my grave concerns known,” Berner said. “Judge Moskowitz sees himself with the authority to sort of make his own law and pays insufficient attention to what the actual law is.”

Bly said he expects the Judicial Committee will “rubber stamp” Moskowitz’s renomination, but felt he needed to speak out so people would know the truth about Moskowitz’s conduct on the bench and in chamber conferences.

“I don’t find him to be an even-tempered judge,” Bly said. “He is the one judge that I will make sure my clients are not in front of.”

But as Banda, Berner and Bly joined Nichols in opposing the renomination, other defense attorneys who hadn’t previously taken a position on Moskowitz said in phone interviews Monday that he is a fair judge.

Portland attorney J.P. DeGrinney said he considered calls to remove Moskowitz from the bench “ridiculous.”

“Judge Moskowitz is very much a ‘law and order’ judge,” DeGrinney said. “In terms of how he treats litigants in the courtroom, I think he is an excellent judge. He’s a tough judge. But I’m absolutely fine with his conduct. I’m absolutely fine with his rulings.”

Another Portland attorney, William Maselli, agreed, even though Moskowitz has ruled against his clients in criminal cases.

“I like Moskowitz. It’s a difficult job, and he takes it seriously. Things don’t always go your way as a criminal defense attorney,” Maselli said. “I’d say I’m a supporter, though I don’t always agree with what happens.”

Moskowitz is the second judge this year whose nomination for reappointment has drawn opposition, especially from those who have appeared before the judges in divorce cases in Family Court. In March, the Judiciary Committee also delayed making an immediate decision for Judge Patricia Worth. The committee eventually recommended Worth’s appointment unanimously.

The committee has not opposed the nomination of a judge in decades. In 1990, then Gov. John McKernan withdrew his nomination for Judge John Benoit after two grueling days of hearings in which Benoit was criticized for failings.

Nichols said in a phone interview that he decided to write a letter to the Judiciary Committee because of his experiences before Moskowitz and from talking to less established attorneys who felt the same way but were afraid to speak out.

“My letter said Jeff (Moskowitz) was an outstanding prosecutor and an outstanding attorney. He’s just not a good judge,” Nichols said.

Banda was particularly galled by an instruction that Moskowitz gave to a jury in a drunken-driving case last year in Portland. Banda said that in order to increase the likelihood of a conviction, Moskowitz changed the accepted instruction that judges have been giving to juries for decades.

The manual for judges in drunken-driving cases, which was written by Justice Donald Alexander of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, tells judges to say: “State law does not prohibit drinking and driving, the question is whether someone was under the influence.”

But Banda said Moskowitz changed that standard instruction over his objection to tell the jury it is legal to have a “sip” of alcohol or “one drink” before driving. Banda objected because he felt that suggested state law does not allow more than a “sip” or “one drink,” even though it may take different people more alcohol consumption to cross the legal threshold for driving – a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent.

“The general sentiment among the defense bar is he is not someone the defense bar likes to deal with,” Banda said.

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.