In this April 11, 2017, file photo, Judge Valerie Stanfill listens to the defense during the hearing on a motion to spare the life of Dakota the dog, who was pardoned by then-Gov. LePage, in Waterville District Court. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

Gov. Janet Mills on Monday nominated a new chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

This comes after Chief Justice Leigh Saufley stepped down in April last year to lead University of Maine School of Law in Portland, and the position has remained vacant for almost 13 months while Mills deliberated over the nomination.

Mills’ nominee, Superior Court Justice Valerie Stanfill, 63, of Wayne, will be the second woman in Maine’s history to serve as chief justice if confirmed.

“Justice Stanfill’s sharp intellect, vast legal experience and expertise, and commitment to administering justice fairly and impartially make her an exceptional candidate to serve as Maine’s chief justice,” Mills said. “I firmly believe that the court will benefit considerably from her skills and that our state will be well-served with her at the helm of Maine’s Judicial Branch.”

Stanfill is Mills’ third nomination to Maine’s high court since taking office. Justices Catherine Connors and Andrew Horton were appointed in 2020 to replace retiring Justices Donald Alexander and Jeffrey Hjelm.

Stanfill takes over leadership of a court system that has a staggering backlog of 10,000 more criminal cases than it had in 2020 because of limited court activity due to the coronavirus pandemic. The new chief justice also must oversee the implementation of the judiciary’s new electronic case management system being piloted now in Bangor.

Maine’s court system last month began holding criminal jury trials for the first time since last fall when they were put on hold due to the pandemic. The cases judges dealt with were limited to emergency matters including first appearances of arrestees, child protection cases and protection from abuse and harassment petitions.

Stanfill is assigned to oversee four homicide cases, according to the Maine Attorney General’s office. Justice Robert Mullen, chief judge of the Superior Court will have to assign those cases to a different judge.

Jamesa Drake, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the new chief justice’s leadership will be extremely important over the next year in overseeing a return to normal judicial operations.

“As the chief appellate judge, the chief will need to breathe new life into the Maine State Constitution, which has [lain] dormant in criminal cases for far too long,” Drake said. “MACDL wholeheartedly congratulates Justice Stanfill on her nomination, and we stand ready to help her mission.”

Stanfill was nominated by Mills to the Superior Court bench in December 2019 and was sworn in two months later, a month before the pandemic shut down all but essential service. In that job, Stanfill has presided in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties. Prior to that, she served for 13 years as a District Court judge.

Well-known criminal defense attorney Walter McKee of Augusta, who is a member of the governor’s judicial review committee said that Stanfill will be missed in the state’s trial courts.

“She was always a sharp judge who could quickly cut through to the cusp of every issue,” McKee, who appeared before Stanfill many times, said. “She demanded the best from attorneys who appeared before her and made us all better attorneys.”

One of Stanfill’s most high-profile cases as a District Court judge in Kennebec County involved Dakota, a dog condemned to death in early March 2017 after it attacked two small dogs in Waterville, killing one.

LePage issued a pardon for Dakota on March 30, 2017, turning the case into a national story and triggering questions over whether the Maine Constitution allowed the governor to grant clemency to an animal.

While Stanfill never considered the legality of LePage’s pardon, she granted Dakota a permanent reprieve from her death sentence in July 2017 when she approved a deal that spared her life but banned her permanently from Waterville. The judge also sealed information about who adopted Dakota and where the dog lives.

Stanfill said Monday that being nominated to serve as chief justice is “the honor of a lifetime.”

“I pledge to the people of Maine that I will serve them honorably and faithfully, that I will uphold the rule of law, and that I will work every day to deliver fair and impartial justice,” Stanfill said.

Stanfill graduated from the University of Maine School of Law in Portland and received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

All judicial nominees must appear before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and be confirmed by the state Senate. A nomination hearing has not been set.