September 15, 2019
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Maine judge once known as ‘Diamond Lil’ retires after nearly 30 years on state, federal benches

BANGOR, Maine — Few people who appear in one of the state’s district courts would call the experience fun.

But that’s how Margaret “Peggy” Kravchuk remembered her five years as a district court judge in Bangor. Kravchuk, 65, retired Jan. 24, after nearly 30 years on the bench in state and federal courts in Maine. Her last job was as a U.S. Magistrate judge in Bangor.

“District court was a lot of fun,” Kravchuk said recently as she recalled one man’s first appearance before her in the late 1980s. “First off, all the Bangor police said that I should just tape my arraignment speech, and they would pipe it into [two local bars], so then people wouldn’t have to get dragged down to court to hear it.

“This guy came in late because he’d been feeling a bit under the weather at the jail, so he missed my arraignment speech that explained his rights,” Kravchuk said. “He’s standing in front of the bench with the court officer. I’m giving my spiel just to him. I’m talking fast, and I talk with my hands a lot. I used to wear a few more rings than I do now.

“And, finally, right in the middle of my advising him of his rights, he turned to the police officer and said, ‘Who the hell is that anyway, Diamond Lil?’ That’s me, Diamond Lil,” she said.

Pictures of Diamond Lil, Kravchuk explained to Marc Veilleux, her law clerk of 12 years, “used to be in all the taverns.” Diamond Lil was made famous on stage and in films by actress Mae West.

All of Kravchuk’s colleagues mentioned her sense of humor as one of the qualities for which they’ll remember her.

“We will all miss her legal insight, her practical touch, her accumulated wisdom, and her quick sense of humor,” U.S. District Judge John Woodcock, her last boss, said in January.

Kravchuk left teaching in the mid-1970s to go to what is now the University of Maine Law School in Portland. She graduated in 1976, then worked as a law clerk to the late Superior Court Justice David Roberts and seven other judges in central, northern and Down East Maine.

Three years later, she went to work in the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office. In 1984, she was elected district attorney after David Cox was appointed to District Court bench. Kravchuk probably served the shortest term of any elected district attorney in state history.

“I was sworn in in January [1985] and appointed a District Court judge in February,” she said.

In 1990, Kravchuk was elevated to the Superior Court bench and, by her own admission, presided over a lot of murder and manslaughter trials. The trial of Ron Marie Henderson in 1993, over which Kravchuk presided, was one of a handful in which cameras were allowed in courtrooms during testimony.

Henderson was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of her husband, Danny Henderson, on Sept. 8, 1991. It was one of the first times a battered wife defense was successful in Maine.

“We all knew the case would have a high public profile,” U.S. District Judge George Z. Singal, who successfully defended Henderson when he was in private practice, said last month. “It was one of the first trials where television cameras were permitted in the courtroom. All this had the potential of impacting the fairness of the proceedings. Judge Kravchuk from the beginning of the trial set a standard of fairness tempered with moments of levity that led to what both sides considered a just trial. Little did I know then that Judge Kravchuk and I would later become judicial colleagues and little did I know that I would adopt many of her judicial attributes when I became a judge.”

Singal said those attributes included wisdom and respect for the people appearing before him.

“She also has a unique talent to sense tension in the court and relieve it with a note of quiet humor,” said Singal, who last year took senior status, which allows him to work part time.

Kravchuk became the federal magistrate judge in Bangor in January 2000. She replaced Eugene W. Beaulieu, who retired at the age of 70. John Nivison, 53, left the Superior Court bench to take Kravchuk’s job on Jan. 27.

“Judge Kravchuk, like Judge Beaulieu, was able to effectively and efficiently manage the docket while maintaining a sensitivity to the needs of the lawyers and litigants who appeared before her,” Nivison said Monday. “I hope to continue this tradition.”

Magistrate judges issue arrest and search warrants, hold probable cause and detention hearings, resolve civil motions that do not involve depositions, make recommendations on criminal and civil motions, select juries for civil and criminal trials and preside over civil trials with the consent of the plaintiffs and defendants.

The former judge said in January that while she missed the three or four trials a month she presided over in Superior Court, she enjoyed the greater financial resources of federal court. Kravchuk also traveled to the former Soviet Union to educate judges there and hosted Russian judges in Maine. She returned to teaching occasionally to train new magistrate judges and earned a national reputation for her training skills.

Kravchuk said that she felt it was time to retire. She and her husband, Harold Hamilton, “want to do other things” including spending time in South Carolina this month, she said.

“My major thing is in March,” Kravchuk said. “I have a reservation in a bird blind on the North Platte River in Nebraska to see the largest migration in North America of the Sandhill cranes that come through there every year on their way to Canada.”

Kravchuk said that she’s “subject to recall” if a magistrate judge is needed for short stints.

“I said I’d do up to two weeks, probably not in this court, because usually they need people in busier courts,” she said. “They asked me if I wanted to go to Bridgeport , Conn., in February. I said, ‘No. Talk to me about San Juan.’”

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