After a process that drew some political criticism, Sean Ociepka, 39, was sworn in as the new Waldo County probate judge on July 31 to serve out the remainder of Judge Susan Longley’s term. Longley announced this spring she would step down more than a year before her term concludes at the end of 2020.
The soft-spoken Ociepka said he brings a passion for helping people, as well as 13 years experience as a Maine lawyer. He will preside over estates, trusts, adoptions, name changes, guardianships and protective proceedings.
“Anyone who comes into this position views it as public service,” he said, adding that this fits in with his legal philosophy. “I usually describe to my kids that I’m there to help people when they have problems to sort out or issues to deal with.”
Ociepka has been busy getting settled in the court’s new space, which relocated from the basement to the first floor of the former Belfast District Court building on Church Street on July 31.
In Maine, probate judge is a part-time position. Ociepka will continue to practice in the firm he and his wife, lawyer Elly Burnett, run on the Belfast waterfront. They have three children.
Probate judges are the only judges in the state to be directly elected by citizens, and probate courts are under the jurisdiction of the county, not the state court system. Because Longley was a Democrat, her successor needed to be one, too, according to the Maine Constitution.
So Waldo County Democratic Committee voted this spring to send Ociepka’s name to Gov. Janet Mills for consideration. Sara Salley, the chairperson of the committee, said that she thinks he will bring a lot to the position.
“He seems to have the perfect temperament for the job, too. Very calm, very warm,” Salley said.
Critics of the process
Not everyone is satisfied with the way that the Democratic committee ran its nomination process. Maine lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Barbara Cardone of Bangor, is working to change the way probate judges are selected. She is sponsoring a bill that would make probate judges appointed and not elected.
In Waldo County, Susan Thiem, a Lincolnville lawyer who ran against Longley, has been critical of the committee. She switched her party affiliation from Democrat to unenrolled in 2016 in order to run and received 33 percent of the vote in that election. She said this week she believes she should have been seriously considered to fill the vacant position.
“They met secretively and pre-selected someone without vetting anyone,” Kevin Hall, her paralegal, said. “I don’t think it’s fair to Waldo County residents.”
On Wednesday, Salley said there was nothing irregular about the nomination process this spring.
“We did not pre-ordain who would be recommended or even how many people would be recommended,” she said, adding that between 15 and 20 people voted at the May meeting.
At that time, the committee heard presentations from Ociepka, Thiem and a third candidate, Belfast attorney Joe Baiungo. Ultimately, members voted to send Oceipka and Baiungo’s names on to the governor. Thiem, who did not make the cut despite her participation in the previous election, said that she learned last-minute about the meeting when she read a BDN article about Longley’s upcoming resignation.
“It was clear they had already made up their minds,” she said.
According to Waldo County Commissioner Betty Johnson, who also is the treasurer of the Waldo County Democratic Committee, that’s likely because Thiem was not enrolled as a registered Democrat when party members first looked for candidates.
“That’s our responsibility as a Democratic committee — to choose Democrats,” she said.
Thiem pushed back, saying she is a registered Democrat and has been for years. But a Lincolnville town official who checked her voter registration card on Tuesday said that Thiem had re-enrolled in the party in 2019. The official did not give the specific date.
Despite any controversy around the nomination process, Ociepka, a Hampden native who graduated from the University of Maine and the University of Maine Law School, said he hopes he will do a good job as judge of probate. He does not quite fit the typical stereotype of a lawyer, and once was mistaken by jail guards for a clergyman when he was visiting a client who was incarcerated. He hopes the same qualities that confused the guards will stand him in good stead in probate court.
“It’s largely a family court. We have a lot of families and kids who are going through tough times,” he said. “I have a lot of experience dealing with people in tough situations and I am hoping that experience will help with being a judge. I am definitely still figuring it out.”
When not working as a judge or lawyer, Ociepka can often be found in a different role entirely: playing the bass in the Leaky Boot Jug Band, a popular Belfast-based music group. But fans probably won’t catch him acting like a rock star.
“I’m very cognizant that I’m bound by the judicial code,” he said, adding that Justice Andrew Mead of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, who plays in the Bangor-based group Retro Rockerz, has paved the way. “If he can do it, I can too.”
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