Chief Justice Leigh Saufley at the new Waldo Judicial Center in Belfast in March 2019.

The chief justice of Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court is stepping down after nearly 20 years as head of the state’s court system.

Leigh I. Saufley will take the reins of Maine’s only law school next week.

Saufley, 65, of Portland declined to comment on her new job, but is expected to begin working as dean on April 15. She is taking over the University of Maine School of Law in Portland when it needs to dramatically change how it operates to attract more students and become more financially stable.

A review of the school presented to the school’s board members last July recommended more funding for the law school, an expanded online curriculum and more partnerships in rural Maine. In recent years, the law school has struggled financially and had to seek reserve funds from the system to meet operating expenses. The review concluded that the next dean needed to be “outward-facing, visionary and bold” in order to reposition the law school for success.

Saufley will be working to fully implement the University of Maine Graduate and Professional Center. The center includes the masters of business administration programs at the University of Maine and University of Southern Maine, the Maine Law School and the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service graduate programs and its Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy.

Peter Mills, a 1973 graduate of Maine law, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, former legislator and brother of Gov. Janet Mills, was on the search committee that recommended Saufley for the new position.

“She is exactly the kind of person the law school needs right now,” he said. “Everybody knows her. She’s going to be a star at attracting top-notch students. And, she’s going to inspire people to go to this law school.”

Mills said that Saufley will report to Chancellor Dannel P. Malloy rather than the president of the University of Southern Maine, as deans have previously.

Former Maine Attorney General James Tierney of Brunswick hired Saufley a few years after she graduated from law school with the Class of 1980 and quickly promoted her to deputy attorney general. He said Wednesday that Saufley’s judicial decisions are not what mark her tenure as a judge.

“Rather her career has been marked by an unflagging commitment to common sense justice and a deep love of Maine,” he said. “I hired her out of law school and quickly promoted her to deputy not just because of her legal skills, but because of her keen judgement as to the realities of life in Maine for all of our citizens.

“She supervised everything from headline child abuse cases and to obscure complex Medicaid reimbursement matters,” Tierney said. “I most valued her ability to actually solve the problem — as opposed to just litigating about it — and in that skill she was unsurpassed.”

Those qualities, according to Tierney, are what will make her “a great dean.”

Gov. Janet Mills, who also graduated from Maine Law, congratulated Saufley on her new job and thanked her for her service. The women have known each other for 30 years and the governor appeared before Judge Saufley in District, Superior and the Supreme Court as Maine’s attorney general and while in private practice.

“At every level she has demonstrated legal acumen and common sense,” the governor said. “While she will be missed on our highest court, her leadership and experience will be a significant asset to the University of Maine School of Law and the next generation of legal professionals in Maine.”

Saufley replaces Danielle Conway, who left in June to head Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, after four years in Portland. Dmitry Bam, the law school’s associate dean, has served as interim dean since July 1, 2019.

Saufley’s legacy as chief justice includes the modernization of the state’s court system including the combining of District and Superior Court operations in one building. During her tenure 45 court facilities were consolidated into 35.

New courthouses also have been constructed in Augusta, Bangor and Belfast, with one in Biddeford being planned under her leadership set to open in 2022. Renovations and/or additions to courthouses in Dover-Foxcroft, Houlton, Machias, South Paris and other communities allowed for streamlined judicial operations there.

Saufley advocated for decades for full-time entry screening at the state’s courthouses. The equipment is now in every courthouse and it is staffed on approximately 65 percent of the state’s court days. Courthouses in Maine’s larger cities such as Bangor, Portland and Augusta have full-time entry screening.

One of the tasks she leaves unfinished is the full implementation of an electronic case filing system. Maine is the last state in the nation to not offer online access to court documents. The pilot program was set to be implemented in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties this fall but the coronavirus outbreak may force it to be delayed.

The governor’s office and her Judicial Nominations Advisory Committee will begin reviewing candidates to succeed Saufley. In the meantime, Justice Andrew Mead, who has been on the state’s high court since 2007 will assume the duties of the chief justice. Several active retired justice are available to hear cases by assignment so that there are seven justices on the court.

The governor said she hopes to nominate a successor in the coming months but is uncertain when senators will be available for a confirmation vote. The Legislature has adjourned as a result of COVID-19.

Saufley, who grew up in South Portland, graduated from the law school in 1980 after graduating from the University of Maine. She worked in the Maine Attorney General’s Office for 10 years before being appointed a District Court judge in 1990 by Gov. John McKernan. Three years later, he elevated her to the Superior Court bench.

Then Gov. Angus King appointed Saufley to the state’s high court in 1997. On Dec. 6, 2001, she was sworn in as Maine’s first female chief justice after Daniel Wathen resigned to run for governor. She was renominated to subsequent terms by governors John Baldacci and Paul LePage.

Saufley has advocated that more women be appointed to judgeships.