Years before Justice Valerie Stanfill was in line to be the state’s top judge, she taught a trial practice class at the University of Maine School of Law with Professor Deirdre Smith. They instructed future lawyers on how to question witnesses and put on their cases. Stanfill already had a reputation as a talented trial lawyer, and Smith remembered her teaching the students to be prepared and professional.

Superior Court Justice Judge Valerie Stanfill, photographed in July 2017, said, “The most important thing we do as judges is not just to listen, but also to ensure people are confident they have been heard.” David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

“She brought a genuineness to her courtroom presence,” Smith said. “I don’t think people felt like she was putting on a whole persona, putting on a whole show. I think people felt like they could trust her, witnesses and jurors and judges alike.”

Now, Stanfill could be trusted to lead Maine’s courts. Gov. Janet Mills on Monday nominated her to be the next chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. In that role, she would sit on the state’s top appellate court and oversee the complex operation of the Judicial Branch. She would succeed Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who stepped down last year to become the dean of the University of Maine School of Law.

People who have worked with Stanfill over her three decades as an attorney and then as a judge described her as intelligent, fair and compassionate. Though a spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch said Stanfill would not be available for an interview, the application materials she submitted to the governor’s office shed some light on her approach from the bench.

“Judging is not just a matter of deciding cases,” she wrote. “Rather, we often are trying to help people find a solution. We try to effect changes in behavior. Sometimes we are trying to make a child’s world better, sometimes we are trying to treat substance use disorders, sometimes we are trying to connect people with educational services, sometimes we are simply trying to make the world a little bit safer. The most important thing we do as judges is not just to listen, but also to ensure people are confident they have been heard.”

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

“That means that people have waited to be heard, waited for their day in court, waited for justice in every different kind of case,” Saufley said. “And as we emerge from the pandemic and are able to bring people into courthouses safely again, the chief justice, along with the trial chief, will have to determine how cases are getting resources to be heard quickly so that people feel that justice is being done.”

The pandemic has added to existing challenges as well. The Judicial Branch was already in the middle of a long awaited shift from paper records to electronic ones, and COVID-19 has forced the courts to use technology that they previously resisted. In her current role, Stanfill presided over Zoom hearings. As chief justice, she would be part of the decisions about how much of that technology will stay when COVID-19 is less of a threat.

“It’s partly a role for the chief judge and the entire Law Court to be open to doing things differently than we did in the past,” said Melissa Hewey, an attorney who serves on the governor’s advisory committee for judicial nominations.

 

Stanfill, 63, was born in Huntington, New York, according to her mother’s obituary. Her family lived in Connecticut, Massachusetts and then Maine. She now lives in Wayne. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1979 and then graduated magna cum laude from the University of Maine School of Law in 1985.

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

Stanfill served on the Maine District Court from January 2007 to February 2020. Since then, she has served on the Maine Superior Court presiding over Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties. District Attorney Andrew Robinson said attorneys who appear in her courtroom know to be ready because she would have reviewed the relevant case law and statutes in detail.

“I never walked out of her courtroom with anything other than the thought that, that was fair,” Robinson said. “I’ve never walked away like, I don’t understand what just happened. It may not have been what I was asking for, but I always understood her decisions and I always felt like they were based on the law and on facts.”

Defense attorney Walt McKee shared that sentiment.

“I have appeared before her countless times and she has excellent command of the law and the courtroom,” McKee said. “When Justice Stanfill was on the bench you always knew two things: you better be prepared because she insisted on it, and you were always going to get a fair shake.”

Attorney General Aaron Frey credited Stanfill for her years on the Domestic Homicide Review Panel, and members of the legal community described domestic violence as a particular area of expertise for her. On the application for the job, Stanfill also identified that area in both the civil and criminal dockets as one of her skills, as well as child protective matters and matters of evidence. In one question, she had to identify what she believed to be the most significant cases of her career as a judge.

“In some ways, the most significant cases I presided over were cases in which rights to children were at stake: child protective cases, including termination of parental rights; child custody matters; and protection from abuse cases in which parents are battling over their children,” she wrote. “These cases are critically important not only to the individuals involved but to the fabric and future of our society.”

Stanfill also mentioned high-profile cases from her time on the Maine District Court. In one, she ruled that retroactively applying a rule change for the sex offender registry to a man with a prior rape conviction was unconstitutional. The Supreme Judicial Court upheld that decision in 2009. In another, she granted the Department of Health and Human Services the right to secure a do-not-resuscitate order for a badly injured baby before the mother’s parental rights had been terminated. The state eventually said it would not enforce that order, and the mother’s appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court was dismissed as moot in 2014. The Legislature later enacted a law that was consistent with Stanfill’s decision.

“Other cases I presided over which generated the most publicity – justifiably or not – include an order to euthanize a dangerous dog … and an order to return a library book in Lewiston,” Stanfill wrote.

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

Stanfill is currently the Superior Court justice appointed to five homicide cases that are being prosecuted by the Maine Attorney General’s Office. Those cases will be reassigned if she is confirmed.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has seven members, including the chief justice. Records from the Cleaves Law Library show that most people nominated as the chief served first as associate justices, but at least two others in the court’s history have not been. The governor has an advisory committee that considers candidates for judicial nominations, and while their work is mostly confidential, members said Stanfill stood out for this role in part because of her trial experience and respected reputation.

“I think she brings an intellectual capacity, the experience and the knowledge of Maine’s system of justice that will really serve the state well into the future,” said John Hobston, the attorney who leads the advisory committee.

Two of the six current justices on the Supreme Judicial Court are women, but Stanfill is only the second woman to be nominated for the chief position. Saufley was the first. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law recently released statistics on the racial, ethnic and gender composition of state supreme courts across the country. In 22 states, including Maine, all of the justices on those courts are white. Across those courts, just 17 percent of justices are Black, Latino, Asian American or Native American, even though people of color make up 40 percent of the United States population. Women hold 39 percent of state supreme court seats, an increase from 36 percent in 2019.

“One of the things that we all look to improving in the future is a greater diversity, both gender and ethnicity and racial diversity, on the bench in Maine, so that as people come into the courtrooms in the state of Maine they see people like themselves on the bench,” Saufley said.

Stanfill indicated on her application materials that she is divorced and does not have any children. Spokespeople for the Judicial Branch and the governor’s office did not respond to questions about Stanfill’s current salary or her expected salary if confirmed as chief justice. Stanfill will need to be confirmed by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and the state Senate. Her nomination hearing has not yet been scheduled.


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