Judiciary committee endorses nominees to state Supreme Court, Superior Court

Posted July 24, 2014, at 2:56 p.m.
Last modified July 24, 2014, at 5:22 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously endorsed the nominations of a seasoned jurist to Maine’s highest court and the state’s top prosecutor to replace him.

In May, Gov. Paul LePage nominated Superior Court Justice Jeffrey L. Hjelm, 58, of Camden to replace Jon Levy, who is now a federal judge, on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, 63, of Augusta 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.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys from around the state supported both men. No one opposed their nominations.

The Maine Senate, the body required by the Maine Constitution to confirm or reject judicial nominees, is scheduled to vote July 31 on the 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.

Hjelm told committee members that during his years as a District Court judge and Superior Court justice he has discerned the role of a jurist.

“I understand that serving as a judge is not like being in a popularity contest or acting like a rubber stamp,” Hjelm told the committee. “In order to maintain an independent judiciary, a judge must be prepared to make the proper decision in a case, even if the proper decision is difficult and unpopular.”

“I understand the importance of judicial temperament and the responsibility that we as judges have to treat everyone, both inside and outside of the courthouse, with dignity, courtesy, respect and patience, no matter who they are, no matter what their backgrounds may be, no matter what circumstances have brought them before the court and no matter what the outcome of their case might be,” he said. “Judges are very much the face of the justice system, and we as judges have a responsibility to act in a way that promotes public confidence.”

Stokes, who has served as mayor of Augusta since January 2011, is the chief of the criminal division in the Maine Attorney General’s Office. He has served under nine attorneys general during his career and handled civil matters.

If confirmed, Stokes will be required to resign as mayor.

He praised his colleagues in the AG’s office and attorneys who represent defendants.

“Members of the defense bar provide extraordinary service and representation to those defendants facing criminal charges in Maine, in many cases at a financial loss to themselves,” Stokes said. “Our system of justice would not function as well as it does were it not for the dedicated members of the defense bar.”

“I have also had the wonderful experience of trying so many cases, usually before juries, in front of some of the finest judges in the country,” he said. “Our judiciary is one of the best in the nation and I am thankful for and humbled by this opportunity to become a member.”

Attorney General Janet Mills, members of her staff, along with Augusta officials, supported Stokes’ nomination. All described his elevation to the bench as “bittersweet.”

“Bill leaves not just a vacancy but a vacuum in my office,” Mills told the committee. “It is with a heavy heart that I support his nomination.”

Mills said she will miss his years of experience and advice on a daily basis. She also said that Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese will replace him if Stokes is confirmed.

Arthur Jette of Cambridge, who represented the Maine chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, said that Stokes “really listens to the families of homicide victims” and “treats everybody with dignity.”