Rick Lawrence, Maine’s first Black judge, stands inside the federal courthouse building in Portland on Friday. Following his swearing in Wednesday, Lawrence became the state’s first Black justice on Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Naturally, some cases have remained on Rick Lawrence’s mind from his more than two decades as a district judge in Maine, but he said one in particular sticks out – and it was for what happened outside his courtroom.

It was a child welfare case in which Lawrence had terminated a father’s parental rights. A few days later, Lawrence said, he was out with friends when a young man came up to him, stuck out his hand and said, “I just wanted you to know you just ruined my life.”

Lawrence, who was sworn in as the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s first Black justice Wednesday afternoon in Augusta, said he believes his decision in the case was the right one, because “you do the best that you can with the facts that are before you.”

But, he said, the encounter has served as a reminder that the law is more than just ink on paper – it has flesh-and-blood impacts. That’s a lesson Lawrence said he will bring with him as he joins the bench of the state’s highest court.

Lawrence was supposed to take his oath last week, but the ceremony was postponed after Gov. Janet Mills tested positive for COVID-19. After a quarantine period and subsequent negative test, Mills administered the oath to Lawrence on Wednesday.

At the ceremony, Lawrence made just one reference to the historic nature of his new position, saying he wanted to express his “profound respect and my debt of gratitude for the generations of African Americans who preceded me and did the heavy lifting to make this historic day possible.”


With that, Lawrence said he was eager to get to work, reading briefs and listening to recordings of oral arguments in some of the cases the court will be deciding this spring.

As a child growing up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Lawrence said he was aware of the reach of courts because of the stream of civil rights cases that he learned about from the news. He said he was too young to follow the nuances of the legal reasoning behind the decisions, but it was an early lesson that the law and courts could be forces for good and stir progress in society.

Lawrence went on to get a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a law degree from Harvard and was recruited by the Pierce Atwood law firm to come to Portland. There, he focused mainly on commercial real estate matters for his clients, Lawrence said, and he then went to work at Unum, where he handled some of the litigation for the insurer.

Gov. Janet Mills shakes hands with new Maine Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Rick Lawrence on Wednesday in the Cabinet Room of the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal


Around 2000, Lawrence attended a seminar where he met an aide to then-Gov. Angus King, he said. Later, that aide reached out and asked if he would like to serve as a Maine District Court judge. Lawrence agreed and became the first Black judge in Maine’s history.

His selection as one of seven justices on the state’s top court doesn’t make Maine a leader in judicial diversity. Nearly two dozen other states have Black justices on their top courts.


Lawrence noted that Maine’s history of promoting diversity in the law is mixed, at best. The first Black man in America to be accepted as a member of the bar was Macon Bolling Allen, in Maine. However, it took 156 years from the time of Allen’s admission to the bar until Lawrence became the first Black person to be named a judge in the state. And then it was another 22 years before he was picked for the state’s top court.

Lawrence said one of his goals as a justice on the Supreme Judicial Court is to help convince more Black lawyers to practice in the state, adding that he will encourage students to take apprenticeships and other opportunities in Maine.

Because of the court’s schedule, Lawrence will have to wait a year to name his own clerk, but exposing young lawyers or those who hope to become lawyers to the state will naturally bring about more diversity to law firms and courthouses in Maine, he said.

“If people of color will become less reticent about coming to the state of Maine, things will tend to build on themselves,” Lawrence said.


Supporters were quick to line up behind Lawrence’s appointment after Mills announced his nomination in March.


Frank H. Bishop Jr., president of the Maine Bar Association’s Board of Governors, said it wasn’t a close call when it came time for the legal organization to decide whether to endorse Lawrence’s nomination to the court.

“He’s one of the most experienced judges in Maine and probably considered one of the best trial judges in Maine,” Bishop said. “He’s really one of the best judges in Maine.”

The Maine Trial Lawyers Association also said it didn’t require a lot of mental wrestling before deciding to endorse Lawrence’s nomination.

“It was an easy one – we didn’t have any difficulty,” said Susan A. Faunce, a lawyer in Lewiston who leads the association.

When the group surveyed its members on Lawrence’s nomination, “the responses we got back were all positive,” Faunce said, with lawyers saying Lawrence is “positive, kind, compassionate and good-tempered.”

Faunce said she saw that firsthand when she worked as a clerk in the Lewiston District Court, where Lawrence served as a judge.


“He was an even-tempered, kind person,” she said, “(and he) did a lot of good work during his tenure at the district court.”

Lawrence said he enjoyed his time on the bench in district court and also has served on some commissions that looked at legal problems in the state. One sought to reform the guardian ad litem system. The guardians are used most often in divorce cases and are supposed to help the court decide what is in the best interests of a child or children.

He said Maine hasn’t been able to finance a wholesale change in the system, but that the committee’s recommendations now make it easier for judges to appoint a guardian ad litem to help them fashion better divorce decrees in which the needs of children are represented.

That’s the kind of work Lawrence hopes to continue while on the Supreme Judicial Court to ensure that the legal system will be a force for helping people and shaping a civil, fair society.

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