Gov. Janet Mills has nominated District Court Judge Rick E. Lawrence to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

If he’s confirmed, he will be the first Black justice on the state’s highest court, 202 years after statehood.

“The fact that Gov. Mills has nominated the first judge of color to the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine has to be one of the first things we all talk about,” said Leigh Saufley, former chief justice for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and now dean of the University of Maine School of Law.

“Judges should reflect the population of the people that make up the state of Maine,” Saufley said. “It has taken us quite some time in Maine to get to the point where the bench really is truly beginning to reflect the diversity of Maine.”

Lawrence, 66, has overseen Maine’s District Courts as deputy chief judge since April 2020. He’s been a judge in District Court for more than two decades.

His nomination will need to be approved by the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary and the Maine Senate.


In his Jan. 7 application to the governor’s office seeking to fill the seat of retiring Justice Ellen Gorman, Lawrence wrote that he wishes to “ensure that the vitally important work of the District Court, especially the child protective, family matters, juvenile, and protection from abuse and harassment cases, continues to be given the attention it deserves from the highest court in the State of Maine.”

Gorman, who was appointed to the court in 2007, announced her plans to retire in January 2021, according to a statement from the governor’s office announcing Lawrence’s nomination.

In his more than two decades working in Maine’s District Courts, Lawrence has presided over courts in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, as well as court programs dealing with domestic violence monitoring and foreclosure diversion.

He also chaired the Judicial Branch Advisory committee on Children and Families, which created a guardian ad litem program for Maine that ensured legal representation for children who enter the court system, and he has taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine School of Law.

“The District Courts in the state of Maine encompass a huge swath of human life – family law, housing, disputes among neighbors, cases involving domestic violence,” Saufley said. “Practicing in the District Courts requires lawyers to have very good on-their-feet skills.”

Lawrence noted these experiences in his application, while also addressing his lack of experience in the higher courts.


“I am mindful that I am not the typical candidate seeking consideration for the Supreme Judicial court simply because I have never served on the Superior Court,” Lawrence wrote in his Jan. 7 application to the governor’s office

Lawrence was designated deputy chief judge of the District Court in April 2020. He was reappointed to the District Court for another seven-year term on Feb. 26, 2021.

In his application to the state Supreme Judicial Court, Lawrence wrote that this timing – April 2020, less than a month after most of the country entered lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic – was “less than ideal,” but it was also an opportunity to demonstrate leadership as he was partly “responsible for ensuring that the courts were open, safe and available to those citizens who need them most during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Lawrence became a district judge in 2000, around the same time that attorney L. Clinton Boothby began practicing law. Boothby is listed as a reference on Lawrence’s application to the governor’s office, and he said that he has appeared before Lawrence numerous times in the last 22 years.

“I think he’s a perfect candidate for this,” Boothby said. “I’ve thought for years that he would be someone who would be a credit to the state of Maine to be on the high court.”

Criminal defense attorney Leonard Sharon said he’s also known Lawrence since he joined the District Courts and has appeared before him “at least a hundred times.”


Last year, Sharon taught a senior college course on systemic racism in the criminal justice system. Lawrence was a guest speaker.

“He spoke of the type of cases he sees on the bench, and how in criminal cases sometimes it’s disproportionately people of color. He spoke about his role on the bench and being the only person of color on the bench,” Sharon said.

A 2021 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and policy institute at the New York University School of Law, noted Maine was one of 28 states with no Black state supreme court justices.

“It really is a significant milestone,” Alicia Bannon, director of the Brennan Center’s Judiciary Program and an author of the report, said of Lawrence’s nomination in Maine. “I think it really builds public confidence in the judicial system, so everybody that’s stepping through the court system sees a judiciary with members who reflect the diversity of all the communities that are being impacted by the decisions the court makes.”

Before joining the Maine District Court in 2000, Lawrence worked in the private sector as an attorney for a life insurance company and as an associate at a private law firm dealing with real estate. Prior to law school, he was a manufacturer’s sales representative for Procter & Gamble and an insurance claims administrator for Prudential Insurance. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Yale University.

Excluding benefits, Lawrence currently makes $144,560 as deputy chief district judge, said Amy Quinlan, the state court administrator. He would make $150,862 as an associate justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.


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