Roland Cole did not plan on spending nearly four decades as a judge. The Portland native was going to be a teacher.
“I’d never thought about being a lawyer until a friend of mine who was going to law school said, ‘You’re really argumentative. You’d be a good lawyer,’” Cole, 77, said recently.
After one year in the classroom, Cole was in law school.
He will retire Dec. 31 after 38 years on the bench, the last six as chief judge of the Superior Court. Cole became a District Court judge in 1981. He was elevated to the state’s trial court five years later, which makes him the longest serving Superior Court justice still on the bench and the second longest-serving judge in Maine after Supreme Judicial Court Justice Donald Alexander.
Cole has presided over many high-profile cases in his career, but it is his work with Maine’s adult drug-treatment courts that he has found most rewarding. The judge, along with former Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, was instrumental in bringing drug courts to Maine. Retired Justice Robert Crowley also was part of the original drug-court team.
The idea to establish a drug court in Maine grew out of the Maine Criminal Justice Commission, which examined the state’s criminal justice system and evaluated programs for offenders, according to Anderson.
Through Anderson’s efforts, Maine first received a $35,000 planning grant that paid for prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and court personnel to be trained in how Maine should set up and operate its first drug treatment court. In 1998, Maine received a grant of $320,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice to start the state’s first drug-treatment court in Portland.
It was called Project Exodus and became the model for the state’s six drug-treatment courts operating today in York, Cumberland, Androscoggin, Penobscot, Hancock and Washington counties. The programs serve as an alternative to jail for offenders with a substance use disorder. They combine a judge’s supervision with substance use treatment, counseling, drug testing and escalating sanctions for violating the terms of participating in the program. Participants also must regularly attend 12-step meetings and work or attend school.
Then and now, men and women who graduate from drug treatment courts face reduced sentences or lesser charges once they’ve completed the program and graduate.
Anderson, now executive director of the Maine Prosecutors Association, said she sought out Cole to help develop the program because he was an experienced judge and had the qualities needed to get the program off the ground in Maine.
“He had a lot of common sense, was very pragmatic and an independent thinker,” she said. “To make drug courts a success, the judge had to believe in the power or people to redeem themselves and have a pretty good bullsh— meter.”
Cole said that he enjoyed taking part in many drug treatment court graduations during his time on the bench.
“It is a tremendous feeling to see how far people have come; to see them get healthier before your eyes,” Cole said. “Of course, when they have a relapse, that’s a downer. But we have to understand that that is the nature of addiction.
“I get stopped once or twice a year by someone who failed in drug court but, later, was able to turn their lives around because of the skills they learned in drug court,” he said.
Cole also has overseen one of the most appealed murder cases in the state.
Jeffrey Cookson, 56, is serving two life sentences at the Maine State Prison in Warren for the execution-style shootings of Mindy Gould, 20, and 21-month-old Treven Cunningham, both of Dexter, in December 1999. They died of gunshot wounds to the head and were shot through a pillow. Their bodies were found on a bed in the home where Gould had gone to escape her abusive relationship with Cookson.
Ten years after the crime, in 2009, Cookson asked that a pair of sneakers, a bright orange hat, a black wig and two rotted shirts be tested for DNA.
A 33-year-old Hope man, who had apparently confessed to the crime, turned the items over to Cookson’s trial attorney, William Maselli of Auburn, during Cookson’s murder trial. Maselli did not tell the judge that the man, David Vantol, had confessed to the crime until after Cookson was convicted of two counts of murder in November 2001.
Vantol, who has been described as having a limited education and a history of mental illness, confessed to a detective five times before recanting his confession after being hospitalized at Acadia Hospital in Bangor, according to court documents.
Cookson sought a new trial multiple times, and Cole denied the request every time. In February 2019, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court for the fourth time upheld Cole’s ruling and refused to order a new trial for Cookson.
“The Cookson case had a little bit of everything,” Cole said. “It would make a good book.”
In nearly 40 years on the bench, Cole has seen his share of changes in Maine’s courts.
Two of the biggest are the expanded use of digital recordings of court procedures rather than using court reporters to make a record of proceedings, and the increased number of people who appear before a judge without an attorney to represent them, he said.
Leigh I. Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said that Cole has been a mentor for her.
“Long before we had committees and commissions attempting to create mentoring programs, Roland Cole was mentoring judges throughout the state,” said Saufley, who first went on the District Court bench in 1990. “He was the judge that I always called with questions.”
Cole had only one criticism of his job over the years — the pay, which is the lowest in the nation for judges. As chief judge, Cole’s annual salary is $120,000, which is $5,000 more a year than judges without administrative duties.
“The money was not good when I started,” he said. “It improved for a while in the 1980s and then it just sort of languished. But nobody does it for money because you can make more in business or private practice. You do it because it’s a public service.”
A commission to study the pay of judges, lawmakers and the governor is due to report to the Legislature next month.
Cole plans to work part time after retirement as a judge on what is called active status.
To do that, Gov. Janet Mills must nominate him for the position, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee must hold a hearing and the Senate must confirm his appointment, as the body has done six times in the past. As an active retired judge, Cole would be paid $350 per day or $200 for working half a day.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors praised Cole’s skills as a judge, but also described him as an excellent storyteller.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese, who has been a prosecutor for more than 30 years, has tried many homicide cases before Cole.
“He is always fair with an outstanding sense of humor and a gift for storytelling,” she said. “He believes that all cases can and should be settled without a trial and enjoys the art of negotiation. We will miss him, but look forward to having him sit on trials as an active-retired justice, if he doesn’t settle all of them.”
Defense lawyer Richard Hartley of Bangor, who handled Cookson’s last appeal, described Cole as “a classic old-school Maine judge in the best sense.”
“Justice Cole is a great storyteller,” he said. “Anytime you were in his chambers you were going to get some stories — he seemed to know something about everyone. Then, when it came time for business, you knew that you would have his full attention.”