BANGOR, Maine — District Court Judge E. Mary Kelly grew up in a town of 800 just 12 miles east of Bangor.
Not the city in Maine, the town in County Mayo, Ireland.
“I grew up in Belmullet, a small and remote town on the northwest coast,” she said recently. “It’s a bit to Ireland as Calais is to Maine. Now, our claim to fame is this fancy golf course [Carne Golf Links] that was profiled in Sports Illustrated magazine. We didn’t really have a claim to fame before that.”
Kelly’s soft Irish lilt has startled some and intrigued others before her at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor. A naturalized citizen of the United States, she was a magistrate, or Family Court judge, in southern Maine when former Gov. John Baldacci nominated her in March to be a District Court judge.
“My move from Ireland to Maine in July of 1987 was supposed to be temporary,” Kelly of Falmouth told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee at her nomination hearing last year. “At that time, I was a lecturer in law at the National University of Ireland in Galway. I was awarded a scholarship from the United States government to study the American Bill of Rights, and was assigned to the University of Maine School of Law to teach a course on comparative constitutional law.”
In 1990, she passed the bar exam in Maine while working as a law clerk in Portland for justices on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. For the next dozen years, Kelly worked for the Maine Attorney General’s Office representing the Department of Health and Human Services in District Courts in Cumberland, Sagadahoc and Cumberland counties. In 2005, she was hired by the court system as a Family Court judge and dealt primarily with disputes between parents about issues of custody and support.
“I work hard to ensure that parties are treated with care and respect in the court system,” Kelly told the Judiciary Committee last year. “I make sure that people feel their concerns are heard and understood both by me and by the other parent in the case. I have found that the vast majority of parents I encounter care deeply about their children, and with some guidance and gentleness from the court, most resolve their cases by agreement.”
For the past six months, Kelly has brought that standard of care to courtrooms in Bangor, where she has been assigned temporarily.
When people charged with breaking the law at the University of Maine appeared before her late last month, she asked them whether they were students. If they were, she inquired about their majors. To those who entered guilty pleas, she issued a mild admonition and wished them luck.
“As a magistrate, what I decided was that people respond best if they are treated gently and kindly,” she said of her judicial demeanor. “I think it’s important to remember that they are not cases before me, they are people. In criminal cases, I want to be able to connect with defendants without condoning their behavior.”
Bangor lawyer Terence Harrigan earlier this year gave Kelly directions to the courthouse when the two met on a downtown street. It wasn’t until he stood before her a few weeks later in court that he remembered taking a class from her in law school.
“I think she’s fantastic,” Harrigan said Tuesday. “She’s friendly and approachable, but stern when she needs to be. I also think she has a genuine interest in the people who appear before her and respects their humanity.”
Maine supreme court Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley said last week that having a foreign-born judge on the bench was good for the judiciary.
“Diversity in any organization is important and enriching,” she said, “whether it is diversity in work and educational experience, race, ethnicity, religion, gender or personal background.
“There are many ways to approach and think about problems,” the chief justice continued. “We come to better solutions when we have the benefit of different perspectives. Mary brings the additional context of a different education and geographic background to all of her work, and that adds immeasurably to discussions of proc-ess, justice and the law.”
This spring, Kelly will leave Bangor and return to her home in Falmouth. She will preside in District Courts in York and Oxford counties.
District Court Judges Jessie Gunther, Bruce Jordan and Patrick Ende will remain in Bangor for the near future, according to Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the court system. Gunther of Bangor first was nominated to the District Court bench in 1976.
Jordan of Veazie is a former Family Court judge who presided in Bangor. Ende of Hallowell worked as Baldacci’s counsel for two years after working for legal service organizations for many years. Both men were confirmed by the state Senate in August.
Kelly said last month that she felt grateful for the career opportunities she has found in Maine and the U.S.
“There are very few countries in the world where you could become a judge if you were not born there,” she said.