BANGOR, Maine — Dramatic changes are needed to bring Maine’s court system into the 21st century, according to Warren Silver, who retired Dec. 31 after more than nine years as an associate justice on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
“We have to reshape how the trial court system delivers justice in Maine,” Silver, 67, of Bangor said in December. “We’re doing it the way we did it in the 1900s, and we’re in the 21st century. We have to give our trial judges the support they need.
“They don’t have enough secretarial help,” he continued. “They don’t have enough law clerk help. They don’t have enough case management help. And if you gave them that, they could handle more. The answer is not more judges. The answer is more support for the judges you have.”
Gov. Paul LePage included funds for four more district court judges in his proposed budget as part of his initiative to fight the state’s drug epidemic. LePage has not asked the Legislature for funds to pay for support staff.
Silver joined the state’s high court in July 2005. He was nominated by Gov. John Baldacci of Bangor to replace retiring Justice Paul L. Rudman, 79, now of Tucson, Arizona. When he retired, Silver was the only justice who had not served on a lower court before being appointed.
A decade ago, Silver was best known for being the attorney, friend and sometime spokesman for author Stephen King. Silver said in December he and King met through their children, who were classmates in Bangor and remain friends.
In an interview with the Bangor Daily News about two weeks before he retired, Silver talked about his years on the bench.
The Aroostook County native was critical, not of his fellow justices but of what he said were the unmet needs of Maine’s judicial branch. He also said the county probate judges, the only elected judges in the state, should be brought into the judicial branch and be appointed by the governor or the chief justice.
“There should not be elected judges anymore,” he said. “We should keep politics completely out of the judiciary.”
Silver also said justices spend too much time on administrative work and serving on committees instead of on appellate case work.
The two things that surprised him the most when he went on the bench were the lack of funding for the judicial branch and the workload.
“There was rarely a weekend when I did not have work to do,” Silver said.
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley refused to comment on Silver’s calls for changes to the judicial system. In a posting on the judicial branch’s website, she praised him for the enthusiasm and energy he brought to the job.
Shortly after he was sworn in, Silver was asked to oversee the construction of the $36.4 million Penobscot Judicial Center. It combined the former Bangor District Court and Penobscot County Superior Court, both previously located on Hammond Street. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held Sept. 21, 2007, and the building opened on Nov. 23, 2009.
“Every aspect of that project presented challenges that the judicial branch had not faced in recent times,” Saufley said. “Through it all, Justice Silver maintained the positive, creative attitude that he has come to be known for within the judicial branch.”
A photograph of Silver hangs in the lobby of the courthouse.
During his years on the court, Silver authored 153 opinions, 22 dissents, 13 concurrences and seven opinions that were concurring in part and dissenting in part, according to information posted on the court system’s website.
“I’m proud of every decision that I’ve written,” Silver said. “Every decision is important to one person and some to many people. I can’t single out any particular decision because there are a lot of them I feel really good about.
“The ones that I feel the best about were the ones when the case was first discussed or argued, I had one position, my colleagues had another position and I was able to change their minds,” he said. “That is really the biggest satisfaction that you can get as a justice.”
Silver graduated from Presque Isle High School before earning his undergraduate degree at Tufts University. He received his law degree from the American University College of Law in 1973 and set up his practice in Bangor four years later.
“Being on this court is just the most incredible legal challenge that a lawyer can have,” Silver said. “You make policy, both administratively and legally, which affects the citizens of the state and the lawyers who practice in the state. So, it is an enormously challenging and satisfying job to have.”
Silver in December had no firm plans for retirement but said he might do what he did as a teenager in Aroostook County.
“My father owned the Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge dealership,” he said. “My first job was driving people to and from service appointments. I could go back to doing that.”
LePage has not yet nominated anyone to replace Silver.