ELLSWORTH, Maine — In his nearly 21 1/2 years as a District Court judge, the Bible verse on which Bernard Staples reflected most often was Matthew 19:14: “But Jesus said, ‘Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’”
Staples, 77, of Hulls Cove in Bar Harbor retired Thursday. This fall, he will journey down a new path when he begins studying to be a minister at Grace Evangelical Seminary in Bangor.
“I hope I treated people fairly,” Staples said of his years on the bench. “Above all, I hope that I have protected children.”
Although the state’s 36 District Court judges hear both civil and criminal matters, much of their work is focused on domestic relations, such as divorce, child custody and child protective cases, according to information on the court system’s website.
Staples said that he has seen firsthand over the past two decades the dissolution of the family structure and the impact it has had on the children of Hancock County.
“One thing I would hope [for the future] is that we can reach a point in our society when two people become married that it is a lifelong commitment and their children can have the benefit of constant contact with both parents,” he said. “That’s very important for children.”
Staples was born and raised in Rockland. He graduated from Bates College in 1955, then spent two years in the U.S. Army. He tried teaching school for a year, but decided it wasn’t “a good fit” for him. He graduated from Boston University Law School in 1961.
After working as an attorney for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Huntington, W.Va., Staples decided to return home to Maine. He went into practice with Ralph C. Masterman in Bar Harbor, working primarily in Hancock County until he was appointed to the District Court bench by Gov. John McKernan.
“Judge Staples is widely regarded as a wonderful person,” Anne Murray, chief judge of the District Court, said last week in an e-mail. “Judge Staples was a conscientious and hard-working judge, and he will be greatly missed by his colleagues on the District Court.”
Staples went on the bench on Feb. 27, 1989, according to Murray. In the early 1990s, he served in Belfast and Bar Harbor, in addition to Ellsworth. The courthouse in Bar Harbor closed in 2005 and Staples helped with the consolidation the clerks’ offices.
“The Ellsworth District Court is a busy court, and there is at least one District Court courtroom open each day,” Murray said. “On most days over the last several years, the judge presiding in that courtroom has been Judge Staples. He has provided a constant and consistent face to justice in Ellsworth.”
Staples said last week that religion always has been an integral part of his life and he has attended church regularly. His only daughter, Heather Staples, graduated earlier this year from the University of Maine School of Law in Portland.
It was after the death of his wife, Jeanette Staples, in October 2006 at the age of 79, and his own health issue two years later, that Staples said he began thinking about what he might do after retirement.
“I was undergoing a significant illness and started to reflect on my relationship to my lord Jesus Christ and to God,” he said. “I decided that for whatever years I have left, I can’t think of a better way to spend them than in a classroom with a teacher and other students.”
Staples said that Scripture has informed but never influenced his work as a judge and as a lawyer.
“The Old Testament taught me to respect the difference between right and wrong as set forth in the Ten Commandments,” he said. “The New Testament lessons of our lord Jesus Christ taught me to be compassionate.”
Staples’ favorite place to study his Bible, however, is not at home or in a church.
“My recreation is kayaking, and my kayak buddy and I often seek a quiet cove or some other place to sit in our kayaks and read Holy Scripture in a church that is like no other on this Earth.”
It’s doubtful anyone, believer or not, would object to that observation.