Justice leaving Maine supreme court

Posted May 29, 2009, at 10:11 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — The longest-serving justice on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will step down later this year.

Robert W. Clifford, 72, of Lewiston has not officially submitted his resignation to Gov. John Baldacci, but the justice reflected on his long career on the bench at a May 19 luncheon with the Penobscot County Bar Association.

“It has been a real privilege to serve as a judge for such a long time and to deal with the fine lawyers who practice in this state,” he said.

Gov. Joseph Brennan first appointed Clifford to the bench in 1979 as a Superior Court justice. Clifford became the first chief justice of the Superior Court five years later when Maine supreme court Chief Justice Vincent L. McKusick appointed him to oversee the working of the courts where jury trials are held.

Clifford joined the state’s high court on Aug. 1, 1986, when he was appointed by Brennan during the governor’s last year in office. Clifford was reappointed to the supreme court in 1993, 2000 and 2008.

“He is a gentleman and scholar,” supreme court Justice Warren Silver said at the luncheon. “He cares about lawyers and litigants.”

Clifford is better known among lawyers in Bangor as Penobscot County Assistant District Attorney Alice Clifford’s uncle, Silver said.

Alice Clifford sat next to her “Uncle Bob” at the luncheon and posed for photos with him afterward. She said that his commitment to public service and his integrity have served as an example in her own legal career.

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley said Justice Clifford encouraged her to take on the job of heading up the judiciary in 2001 when then-Chief Justice Daniel Wathen stepped down even though Clifford was the most senior member of the Law Court.

“He’s the bedrock of the court,” Saufley said.

During his long tenure on the state’s highest court, Clifford has served as the court’s liaison to the Advisory Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure and to the Maine Assistance Program. He also has served as an adviser to the Criminal Law Advisory Commission. During the past year, he has headed up the Indigent Legal Services Commission.

Clifford, who was born and raised in Lewiston, graduated from Bowdoin College and earned his law degree from Boston College Law School.

At the luncheon, he encouraged members of the Penobscot County Bar “to do something in your community outside the law.”

That’s exactly what the justice did when he practiced law in the family firm in Lewiston-Auburn from 1964 until 1979. During this period he served three terms on the Lewiston Board of Aldermen, one term as its president, and was elected to and served two terms as Lewiston’s mayor.

“My experience with the city of Lewiston and in the Legislature made me a better lawyer and a better judge,” he said.

Clifford was elected to the Maine Senate and served in the 106th and 107th legislatures in the 1970s. He was a representative from the Senate on the Commission to Revise Maine’s Probate Laws, which drafted Maine’s current Probate Code. In 1978 and 1979 he served as chairman of the Lewiston Charter Commission, which drafted Lewiston’s city charter.

“I would recommend that you attempt to do something in your community, whether it’s through your church, a charitable organization or being on the local zoning board,” he told the lawyers. “You might even run for the Legislature.

“It’s a myth that there are too many lawyers in the Legislature,” Clifford continued. “We don’t have enough. Lawyers are uniquely qualified for the job.”

Clifford’s plans for the future don’t include retirement. He said that he may return to private practice or go on active status as a judge and occasionally hear cases in courts around the state where needed.

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