AUGUSTA — The nomination of Mayor William Stokes to become a Superior Court justice was approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee Thursday, but not without extensive discussion of whether the longtime criminal prosecutor will be able to put aside his relationships with his fellow prosecutors and act fairly as a judge.

Several supporters, including a criminal defense lawyer who has battled in court with Stokes, said Stokes is already fair and respectful in his dealings with everyone, including criminals and their defense attorneys. Stokes serves as a deputy attorney general and chief of the criminal division of the Maine Office of the Attorney General.

“Judges call balls and strikes,” said Leonard Sharon, a criminal defense attorney from Auburn, paraphrasing comments from Justice John Roberts at his 2005 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. “To Bill Stokes, it would never enter his mind to call a ball, a strike, because it came from a prosecutor. He prosecutes with fairness and dignity. And he’ll take that with him to the bench, because he knows no other way.”

Sharon said he and Stokes have had some good fights in court over the years, but there’s no one he’d rather fight with, noting that he was getting emotional as he spoke, “because I love the man.”

The state Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, following more than an hour of testimony from lawyers, city officials and others, voted 11-0 to support the nomination. Gov. Paul LePage nominated Stokes for the position.

Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, Senate chairwoman of the committee, asked Stokes, who began working in the state attorney general’s office in 1977 and has served under nine attorneys general, if his relationships with prosecutors would influence his decisions as a judge.

Stokes said he would have no bias and have no problem adapting to a new role, as a judge, in a courtroom rather than a deputy attorney general advocating for the prosecution.

“Once you take that oath, no matter what job you had before, you must assume the role of neutral,” he said. “I’m confident I can do that.”

Stokes’ nomination next goes to the full state Senate, likely July 31. Unless the Senate votes to overturn the nomination of Stokes, which would take a two-thirds vote, he’ll be named a justice that day. He’ll also cease being mayor, as Stokes said judicial rules prevent him from holding elected office, so he’ll resign as mayor if and when he is appointed. City councilors, likely at their next meeting after Stokes’ Senate confirmation hearing, are expected to appoint an interim mayor from within their ranks to serve until the November elections.

Supporters said Stokes’ time in public service as mayor and, before that, as a city councilor and school board member, help make him a better candidate to be a judge.

William Bridgeo, city manager, said Stokes has a way of avoiding rancor at city council meetings by insisting everyone be treated with respect. He believes Stokes will quickly, in turn, gain the respect of the public when he takes the bench as a judge.

Carlisle McLean, chief legal counsel for LePage, said Stokes, a registered Democrat, was nominated by LePage, a Republican, because Stokes will be a strong, experienced, fair and proficient judge.

Attorney General Janet Mills said Stokes, whom she has worked with for 38 years, is a good all-around lawyer, not just a criminal prosecutor. She said he spent some 10 years doing civil litigation, had done detailed contract work, litigated free speech issues, wrote opinions on municipal law, and helped review and reform the state’s bail code. And, she said, he’s got a sense of humor, including about himself.

“He has, undoubtedly, a way with jurors,” Mills said. “Not everyone has that. That will serve him well. Juries will pay attention to him. The best litigators see all sides of an issue. The best judges have integrity and a deep sense of ethics. For 38 years, I’ve always seen that in Bill Stokes.”

Mills said she intends to have Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese take over Stokes’ position as chief of the criminal division of the AG’s office.

Stokes, 63, with his wife Diane Doyen and son Liam and daughter Alicia at his side, said he was deeply honored to be nominated and he has “been blessed with more than I deserve,” in life.

The Massachusetts native said sometimes he lies awake at night, thinking about the enormity of the honor of being nominated to be a judge. He credited his mother, who he said raised his brother and he, essentially alone, for giving him the abilities to succeed.

“She sold cosmetics at Filene’s Department Store in Boston, and I don’t know how she did it, but we lacked for nothing,” Stokes said of his late mother. “She used to say, ‘Billy, I love every bone in your body.’ I know she meant it. And knowing that has made all the difference in my life. I know she’s looking down on this proceeding today with pride and joy.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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