The United States of America needed a lawyer, and the call went to Ralph Lancaster.

The Maine attorney, who died Jan. 22 at the age of 88, was appointed special counsel to represent his country in a territorial dispute with Canada over 30,000 square miles of the Georges Bank fishing grounds, a case heard in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. When it concluded, two-thirds of the disputed waters ended up on the American side of the border.

That was just one of the occasions in which the federal government bypassed more-famous lawyers in prestigious firms in Washington and New York to select Lancaster. Three times he was selected as a special master by the Supreme Court to investigate disputes between states, issuing findings that had the weight of court decisions. In 1998 he was appointed independent counsel to investigate charges of political corruption involving Alexis Herman, who was Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor.

You may not have heard of that one, which took place at the same time as independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation of the president’s sex life. Even though Lancaster’s probe included an under-oath interview with the president in the White House, it did not make much news — a testament to Lancaster’s sense of duty and discretion. There were no leaks, no juicy details. Just some lawyers from Maine doing their jobs.

These cases represented a fraction of a legal career that began when he was hired as a clerk to legendary U.S. District of Maine Judge Edward T. Gignoux, for whom the federal courthouse in Portland is named.

Most of Lancaster’s career took place in Maine courtrooms. But theses appointments illustrate the esteem with which Lancaster was held in legal circles, and the recognition is all the more impressive because it was for work done in a small state far from the national spotlight.

Lancaster did not have to stay in Maine. He would have been on any Republican president’s short list for appointments to the federal bench, and he certainly could have made more money by joining a big firm based closer to the center of the action.

Instead, he stayed with Pierce Atwood, the firm he joined in 1959, and continued to practice law until the end of his life, a familiar figure around downtown Portland with his signature bow tie and boundless energy and charm.

Lancaster’s career told the world not to forget about the talent in Maine, said former Gov. John Baldacci, who, after leaving office, came to work with Lancaster at Pierce Atwood. And it showed Mainers that they didn’t need to run away to chase their dreams. “You can be the best of the best anywhere in the world,” said Baldacci. “And you can do it in the state of Maine, which he was very fond of reminding us.”

By any measure, Lancaster had an impressive career, and he leaves behind a community that’s grateful that he chose to have it here.

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