District Court Judge Rick Lawrence speaks before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, which unanimously recommended he be confirmed to a seat on Maine’s highest court, on Friday.  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The first Black nominee to Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court said Friday that his interest in law came from the civil rights movement he witnessed as a child growing up in 1960s western Massachusetts.

Judge Rick Lawrence, 66, recalled watching marches, protests and acts of civil disobedience happening across the country. Opposition to the movement dismayed him, he said, but he grew intrigued as he watched the courts consider these moments and make decisions that “touched the lives of my family and other persons of color.”

“My interest in the law, and thoughts of someday becoming a lawyer, grew out of those roots,” Lawrence told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Friday.

The Maine Senate will vote on Lawrence’s confirmation next week, after members of the Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Friday afternoon to recommend the district judge’s confirmation.

The support for Lawrence’s confirmation came one day after Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson made history by becoming the first Black woman to be confirmed to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lawrence has been a district judge since 2000, when he became the state’s first Black judge. He became Deputy Chief of the District Courts in April 2020, almost immediately taking responsibility for handling staffing shortages, public safety concerns and technology needs that arose during the pandemic.

Advertisement

Standing before the committee, with his wife and daughter in the room and more family watching on YouTube, Lawrence highlighted the professional and personal experiences that he said make him the best candidate for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

District Court Judge Rick Lawrence, left, shakes hands with co-chair Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, before his confirmation hearing Friday before the Judiciary Committee at the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

He was raised by two parents who were unable to graduate from high school because so few resources were available to them in Alabama and Mississippi, he said. On a few occasions, he was able to visit his parents’ home states.

“I still vividly recall my parents being denied service at restaurants on the interstates, our family being relegated to barely functioning, colored-only restrooms at rest stops, and our parents having to search for a motel where our family would be allowed to stay overnight,” Lawrence said.

He went on to get a bachelor’s degree in political science from Yale University followed by a law degree from Harvard Law School. Before law school, Lawrence worked for large companies, including Procter & Gamble and Prudential. After law school, he joined one of Maine’s most prominent legal firms, then known as Pierce Atwood, Scribner, Allen, Smith & Lancaster, and was an attorney for UnumProvident Life Insurance Co.

“You look at his education, remarkable,” said John Hobson, who chairs the governor’s advisory committee on judicial nominations. “When you look at his experience, he was counsel in one of the largest, most prestigious law firms in the state. He then went to work for one of the largest and most sophisticated corporations in the state, Unum Insurance, and then he left all of that for public service.”

FOCUS ON FAMILY LAW

Advertisement

Since joining the bench, Lawrence has heard “thousands of cases,” Hobson said, dealing with housing, crime, domestic relations, monetary damages and, prominently, family law.

As chair of the Maine Judicial Branch’s advisory committee on children and families, Lawrence helped form the state’s guardian ad litem program, ensuring legal representation for children in the courts. Lawrence told the committee that cases involving family matters are among the most important he’s ruled on.

When state Rep. Jim Thorne, R-Carmel, asked Lawrence which of his decisions was most difficult, the judge recalled an incident that occurred about 10 years ago, when he ran into a man whose parental rights case he had heard. The man told Lawrence that he had “ruined his life.”

“That encounter with that individual affected the rest of my time on the bench, in terms of trying to make sure that I got it as right as often as I could with what I had to work with,” Lawrence told lawmakers.

Lawrence said he’d be filling a great need, as retiring Justice Ellen Gorman is known for handling “all things family” on the state’s highest court.

Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, asked Lawrence for his long-term suggestions to address issues with the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which oversees private attorneys representing low-income defendants in Maine courts. In a questionnaire he answered for the committee, Harnett said, Lawrence had suggested a short-term solution of having law firms provide more attorneys.

Advertisement

Lawrence deferred to the Legislature for long-term solutions, but said the state needs more representation for indigent Mainers in the courts. In general, more legal representation would make Maine’s judicial process more efficient, Lawrence said.

“From the court’s perspective, any system that does provide greater representation for those folks who otherwise can’t afford it themselves … will be a boon and a benefit to the citizens of this state,” he said.

PUBLIC SUPPORT

Eight people made public comments in support of Lawrence’s nomination Friday, including the president of the Maine Bar Association, an attorney whose cases Lawrence has considered and the director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, Fatuma Hussein.

“I cry because this man is given the opportunity that makes history for the state of Maine,” Hussein said Friday. “It is courageous, and you have to be resilient to be Black, to be brown, to live in America and to live in the whitest state in the country.”

Members of the legal community who didn’t attend the hearing expressed their support for the judge on Friday.

Advertisement

“The implications of this are really important,” said civil litigator Thomas Douglas, who co-chairs the recently created BIPOC lawyer’s section of the Maine State Bar Association, which offers “support, mentoring, networking, education and fellowship” to Maine attorneys of  color.

“It’s really great to have an eminently qualified judge like Judge Lawrence on Maine’s highest court,” Douglas said. “It makes it easier for us to bring other BIPOC lawyers who might be considering coming to Maine, to get them to come here.”

Four members of the Judiciary Committee were absent Friday. All 10 members present voted in favor of Lawrence’s confirmation.

The committee didn’t vote early enough on Lawrence’s confirmation to make the Senate calendar for Monday, but staff say it’s likely his nomination will be taken up by the full chamber by Tuesday.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login 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.