Biddeford attorney Craig Rancourt, representing the York Bar Association, presents retiring Maine District Court Judge Michael Cantara with a portrait at a reception on Thursday. TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune

BIDDEFORD — Friends, families and colleagues turned out Thursday at Springvale District Court where retiring Maine District Court Judge Michael Cantara spent most of the dozen of years he served on the bench. On Friday by telephone, he described what constituted the best sort of day for him while presiding over a courtroom.

There are the cases where attorneys for both sides are well prepared and treat each other and witnesses with the respect and dignity they’re entitled to, said Cantara. “When they do a good job, they not only honor their profession, but they educate me as a judge and leave me to decide what is most persuasive,” he said.

Another example, he said, is when he is able to point out a middle ground, or suggest a compromise or idea that might solve the problem that brought the parties to court.

Retiring Maine District Court Judge Michael Cantara pauses for a photo with former Maine Governor John Baldacci during a reception in Cantara’s honor Thursday at Springvale District Court. Baldacci nominated Cantara for the bench in 2007. TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune

Perhaps the most heartening, he noted, are the sort of duties a Maine district court judge could not perform until a couple of years ago, when the law changed to allow adoptions to be finalized at the district court level.

“There is no sweeter event in a courtroom in Maine (then) to preside over the adoption of a child, a child often in foster care; to see the smiles and tears of the adoptive parents and the excitement of the adopted child and seats filled with family and friends,” said Cantara. “ It is heartwarming and brings a smile to my face and a lump to my throat.”

Cantara, an adopted son of Jean Paul and Laurette Cantara, said he often cited his own circumstances during adoption proceedings. “My own experience suggests adoptive parents open their hearts and homes in a wonderful act of living and giving,” said Cantara.

Cantara was honored Thursday in a courtroom at Springvale District Court at a reception organized by the York Bar Association. There were family members present, fellow judges, clerks, marshals, members of the bar, the state’s Chief Justice, Leigh Saufley and the individual who nominated Cantara as a judge, former Maine Governor John Baldacci.

Cantara also served as commissioner of Public Safety in the Baldacci administration.

“During difficult times, Mike would always be the voice of reason,” said Baldacci. “He doesn’t take credit very well, but he is one of the nicest people. He is honest and true blue as you could ask of anybody. He truly believes in making a difference in people’s lives.”

“You set a standard for people,” said Baldacci, directing his words at Cantara.

Michael Cantara grew up in Biddeford, and worked at the S & H Green Stamp store and as a stock boy at Ray’s Market during high school. He worked summers at the company now called General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems.

He was an attorney in private practice in Biddeford from 1981 to 1984, and then moved on to become a prosecutor in the York County District Attorney’s Office until 1986 when he returned to private practice. In 1991 Cantara began a 12-year stint as York County District Attorney.

He became mayor of Biddeford in 1988 and had previously served on the city’s Planning Board.

Maine District Court Judge Jeff Moskowitz, left and retiring Maine District Court Judge Michael Cantara unveil Cantara’s portrait at Maine District Court in Springvale during a reception in Cantara’s honor on Thursday./ TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune

Cantara graduated from Biddeford High school in 1971. He studied French language and literature, minoring in biology, at Colby College, and studied a year abroad, at the Université de Caen, in Normandy. A Fulbright Scholar, Cantara taught American Culture and Language for a year in Normandy, and later went on to Middlebury College, where he continued to study French and political science, first at the Vermont campus and later at the Universite de Paris. His education continued in graduate studies at the University of Michigan and the Maine School of Law, in Portland.

While much of his college education seemed to concentrate on the study of French language and literature, Cantara said political science and law were always among his interests.

Growing up in the 1960s and attending college in the 1970s, said Cantara, political issues were at the forefront, citing Watergate, the Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s rights, and the environmental and ecological movements.

“I remember being in a classroom when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated,” recalled Cantara. “Those (events) marked all young people at the time, and it was hard not to think about where the country was going and what we needed to do.”

He said a friend he had met at a student council conference in high school, Michael Messerschmidt, who went on to practice law, kept urging him to apply to law school.

“Law school was always in the back of my mind, and I sat for the law school aptitude test in the American Culture Center in Paris,” said Cantara, who recalled there was a ballet class being conducted on the second floor and so the test was punctuated by the “thump, thump” of the ballerinas practice session.

While reminiscing on Friday, he noted that not every day was a good one while serving on the bench at the District Court. Sometimes there are no good resolutions to a case — days when decisions, he said, don’t necessarily become a solution for the litigants because they’re dealing with unemployment, mental illness, drug addition or lack of affordable housing.

“Recognizing the answer provided in a legal case will not usually address those other issues has weighed heavily on my heart,” said Cantara.

Cases dealing with allegations of child abuse and neglect were difficult.

Retiring Maine District Court Judge Michael Cantara speaks to colleagues, family and friends during a reception in his honor at Springvale District Court on Thursday. TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune

“Decisions need to be on facts and law and not influenced by sympathy or emotion,” said Cantara. “I will confess to finding it difficult to do so at times, when there is testimony that suggests children have been abused and neglected in ways that are almost unthinkable.”

At Thursday’s reception, many stepped to the podium to speak of Cantara’s work and his manner in dealing with colleagues, the public and coworkers, like Deb Sullivan, a clerk at Springvale District Court, who spoke of Cantara’s integrity, compassion and thoughtfulness.

“As mayor, he was exceptional,” said Biddeford Mayor Casavant.

“Judge Cantara is one of the finest,” said Scott Houde of the York Bar Association.

State Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-Biddeford, noted Cantara’s determination to raise Maine’s consciousness about domestic violence during his stint as public safety commissioner.

Cantara on Friday said he’ll take a break, but doesn’t intend to be idle during retirement.

During the reception, he expressed this thanks to all those with whom he had worked.

“I will miss the people,” he said. “A piece of my heart will stay here.”

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 780-9016 or [email protected]

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