BANGOR, Maine — It wasn’t being the second woman appointed to the bench that made her job so challenging in 1976. It was being the youngest person ever to serve as a judge in Maine that caused problems.
Jessie Briggs Gunther was 28 years old when she donned the same black judicial robe she wore Thursday, her last day on the job before retiring.
“It was just a lack of experience because I hadn’t been a lawyer all that long,” she said last month. “My appointment was opposed on youth grounds by the editor of the the Piscataquis Observer. But I think it turned out alright.”
In all, Gunther, 64, of Castine, served nearly 32 years on the bench, most of it as a District Court judge. She first was appointed by Gov. James Longley. After four years, she was elevated in 1980 to the Superior Court bench by Gov. Joseph Brennan.
She left that position in January 1986 to spend more time with her infant daughter. Gunther again was appointed a District Court judge in 1990 by Gov. John McKernan and was reappointed several times by his successors.
A native of Montana who grew up in Damariscotta, Gunther is a granddaughter of Harold Murchie, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court from 1949 to 1953. She is a graduate of Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., and the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pa.
Leigh I. Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said last month at a dinner to honor Gunther sponsored by the Penobscot County Bar Association that the judge had achieved a number of firsts during her judicial career. Gunther was the first woman to serve on the Superior Court, the first female judge in office to have a baby and the first Maine judge ever to go on maternity leave. She also is the longest-serving female judge in the state’s history.
That is not what she will be remembered for by the attorneys who have practiced before her during the past 20 years.
Stephen Smith, a Bangor attorney who practiced before Gunther for more than a decade, described her as “ a wise, grandmotherly figure who exercised her judicial authority in the kindest possible way under what sometimes were the most difficult circumstances.”
Saufley said that she first heard about Gunther from her father, Richard “Dick” Ingalls, who is not a lawyer, before she ever met her.
“When I was a still a baby lawyer, my father’s company had a case in Penobscot County,” Saufley said at the dinner for Gunther. “He came back from a hearing on a major dispositive motion and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but the judge was a woman.’ He said she was prepared and fearless in her questioning. More importantly, she got [it] right, which for dad meant she ruled in his favor.
“When I was appointed to the District Court, I called my dad to tell him,” the chief justice continued in a tribute to the retiring judge. “He said, ‘I hope you’ll be as good a judge as Judge Briggs [Gunther].’ My whole life on the bench, I’ve had to live up to Jessie Gunther.”
During her three decades on the bench, Gunther saw many changes in the judicial system. She began her career in the cramped District Court courtrooms in Dover-Foxcroft and Bangor and ended it in the Penobscot Judicial Center, where her private office was about a third the size of the courtrooms in the old building, which now houses the Bangor post office.
The biggest change Gunther saw in the courtroom was the dramatic increase in the number of people who appeared before her without lawyers.
“Most of what I do now is with litigants who represent themselves in cases where 30 years ago, people always had a lawyer,” she said a few weeks before she retired.
Gunther said that she and her colleagues spend a lot of time helping people who represent themselves negotiate the legal system and its rules of evidence and procedure.
The kinds of criminal cases she dealt with most often also changed.
“Society as a whole has been tremendously successful in decreasing the number of OUIs in court,” she said. “There’s been a significant impact there. On the other hand, the drug problem has increased tremendously. We had little of that 30 years ago.”
Gunther, who has been in recovery since the late 1980s, often warned people sentenced for drunken driving that they couldn’t trust themselves behind the wheel of a car when they had been drinking.
“I do go to [AA] meetings with many people who have been through the system,” she said. “I talk to people [from the bench] who are working on their own recoveries. I think that can be helpful.”
Gunther has informed her colleagues that she will not be working as a part-time judge.
“Like sobering up, the only way I’m going to manage this is to go cold turkey,” she said at the dinner.
Gunther said she plans to spend her retirement gardening, perfecting her curling game, which she took up just a couple of years ago, and spending time with her husband, Frederick Gunther.
“I love you all,” she told the lawyers and judges at the dinner, “but I love Fred more.”