AUGUSTA, Maine — Bangor lawyer Aaron Frey and other Democrats in the legal community were worried when Gov. Paul LePage took office 3½ years ago about whether he would place politics above putting a deliberate, thoughtful person on the bench when nominating lawyers to be judges.
“Those concerns were never realized,” Frey said Wednesday, “because he’s put some very good people on the bench.”
Since taking office in January 2011, LePage has nominated more than a dozen people to become judges in the state’s district and superior courts. All have been confirmed by the Maine Senate.
Frey, a member of the Maine House of Representatives, said that whenever a governor in the opposite party, especially one who is a relative newcomer to partisan politics, is elected, there will be concern about the appointments he or she will make.
“The pattern that I’ve seen is that the folks he’s appointed have had many years of practice, predominantly in service to the state either as judges or prosecutors or in the attorney general’s office,” Frey said. “In my experience, all have demonstrated the qualities of a fair jurist — patience, a willingness to consider an issue from both sides and being deliberative.”
LePage’s most recent judicial nominees appear to fit that pattern. In May, the governor nominated Superior Court Justice Jeffrey L. Hjelm to replace Jon Levy, who is now a federal judge, on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and Deputy Attorney General William Stokes to replace Hjelm, whose office is in the Knox County Courthouse.
Levy’s departure allowed LePage to make his first appointment to the state’s highest court.
Hearings before the Judiciary Committee for Hjelm, 58, of Camden and Stokes, 63, of Augusta will be held Thursday. The Maine Senate, the body required by the Maine Constitution to confirm or reject judicial nominees, is scheduled to vote July 31 on Hjelm and Stokes’ nominations. Hjelm has been a judge for 22 years. Stokes is a registered Democrat, and Hjelm is unenrolled, according to the municipal clerks’ offices in the towns in which they reside.
There are eight Democrats, five Republicans and a representative of the Penobscot Nation on the Judiciary Committee. Only two committee members are lawyers.
Efforts on Wednesday to reach LePage to discuss his approach to judicial appointments were unsuccessful.
When the governor announced the nominations of Hjelm and Stokes in May, he issued the following statement: “I have the utmost respect for and have been impressed with the high quality of the judicial branch. In selecting judges, my focus is on the qualifications, demeanor and integrity of the candidates, not politics.”
LePage has relied on, as have previous governors, a judicial selection committee to screen candidates for judgeships. Newport lawyer Joshua Tardy, a Republican, is the chairman of the six-person group, all of whose members are lawyers.
John Hobson of Portland, who headed the committee when John Baldacci, a Democrat, was governor, is a member. The other members are: Harold Stewart of Presque Isle; Gloria Pinza of Portland; Geoffrey Rushlau of Dresden; and Timothy Woodcock and David King, both of Bangor. All except Rushlau are in private practice. He is the district attorney for Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties.
“The governor has expressed to me that it’s important to him that the selection process not be political and that it be merit-based,” Tardy said Wednesday. “Beyond that, he said, ‘Give me the best applicants, and I’ll interview them.’”
Lawyers interested in being judges apply through the office of the governor’s counsel. Applicants must provide resumes and answer questions in writing about the applicants’ approaches to judicial issues. Committee members read that material and send two or three names for each vacancy to the governor, who interviews candidates and makes a final decision.
“It’s a testament to the quality of the Maine bar that the applicants are very competitive,” Tardy said Wednesday.
One problem is having enough highly qualified lawyers from the private sector in the candidate pool because of low salaries for Maine, he said. To become judges, many lawyers must take pay cuts.
A report of the Judicial Compensation Commission issued in February 2013 said that Maine was 49th in the nation for salaries for Supreme Court justices and 48th for salaries for District and Superior Court judges in January 2012. Pay was raised on July 1 from $123,073 to $129,230 for Supreme Court justices and from $115,356 to $121,118 for other judges, Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the court system said Wednesday.
The average pay for all lawyers in Maine, excluding judges, was $93,940 as of May 2013, according to the Maine Department of Labor. That includes lawyers in firms, those practicing alone and those employed by the state.
The Newport lawyer and former legislator said that concerns over LePage’s judicial appointment at the beginning of his term were “based more on fear of the unknown than anything else. Through his actions, he’s calmed those fears.”
“The quality of the people he’s appointed is a testament to the process the committee has been engaged in,” he said. “Its members have done a fair amount of vetting of nominees, focusing on the person and not on the party. The committee seems to be agnostic about political affiliations.”