Maine’s top judge will be stepping down next week to become dean of the University of Maine School of Law.

Leigh Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, was selected after an extensive national search for the law school’s next leader and will begin her new role next on April 15, University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said on Wednesday.

Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, shown in 2014. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“We are eager to celebrate the announcement of our new law school dean, but understand that these unprecedented times require accommodations from the norm,” Malloy said in a prepared statement. “Chief Justice Saufley is nationally renowned for her accomplishments as a jurist and her commitment to public service. ”

Saufley has served as chief justice of the law court – the first woman in Maine history to hold the position – since 2001. She is a graduate of South Portland High School, the University of Maine and the University of Maine School of Law, and was first appointed to the state district court by Gov. John McKernan, a Republican, in 1990.

Her departure will create a vacancy on the seven-member panel that could be difficult to fill, as the nominee for the post will require a confirmation hearing and vote by the Maine Legislature, which adjourned abruptly in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During her tenure as chief justice, Saufley has presided over, and written majority opinions on, dozens of high-profile cases, including a 2017 advisory opinion the court issued to the Legislature that found the state’s ranked-choice voting law, passed by voters in 2016, in conflict with the Maine Constitution.

The law, which was overturned by the Legislature later that year and then reinstated by another statewide referendum in 2017 that also modified the law, was later upheld by the court in a 2018 opinion that allowed it to be used in June primary elections for the first time.

Saufley also oversaw a controversial case involving Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, and his attempt to veto more than 65 bills after his 10-day deadline to sign or veto bills had passed in 2015.

The court ruled against LePage in the case, upholding 65 laws that covered a broad range of policy areas, including General Assistance for asylum seekers, expanded use of a medication to treat drug overdoses, property tax breaks for Vietnam War veterans and birth control for MaineCare recipients.

Saufley also has been a strong advocate for the court system in Maine and for alternative court systems, like those designed to help veterans struggling with reentry into civilian life and drug courts designed to help Mainers struggling with substance use disorders.

In her 2019 address to the Legislature, Saufley urged lawmakers to beef up support systems and programs – outside of the courts – for Mainers with substance use and mental health problems.

She has also been a strong advocate for better juvenile justice systems for Maine that help youthful offenders in a way that doesn’t leave them locked up or on a pathway to a life of crime.

“The need for a continuum of caring and effective placement options for these youth has never been greater,” Saufley said in her 2019 speech to lawmakers. “We all understand that if the only option for placement in Maine is Long Creek (Youth Development Center), which is designed for very specific circumstances, we are not doing justice for our children.”

Saufley also has overseen the state court system’s ongoing transformation to a more comprehensive digital records system.

Peter Mills, the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, an attorney and former state lawmaker who served on the search committee for the law school, said Saufley stood out in a well-qualified pool of candidates from across the country.

Mills, a brother of Gov. Janet Mills, said Saufley was an inspiring figure for aspiring law school students given her long service on the law court bench, nearly 20 years. But equally important were her Maine roots and her approachable demeanor.

“She’s an inspiring speaker,” Peter Mills said. “She’s one of the most inspiring speakers I think I’ve ever heard. The reason for my personal enthusiasm is that she will inspire exceptional young people to want to attend law school, especially at the University of Maine.”

He said one meeting with Saufley will sell any potential new student on attending the school.

“She will lend a spirit to that school that will generate enthusiasm up and down,” Mills said.

Saufley’s replacement will be Gov. Mills’ third appointment to the high court. In January, the Democratic governor appointed two new members to the court, Katherine Connors and Andrew Horton, to replace retiring justices. Both were easily confirmed by the Maine Senate in February.

The governor praised Saufley’s service to Maine in a statement, while acknowledging the uncertainty around the nomination and confirmation process because of the pandemic. Mills has said she will call the Legislature back to a special session as soon as it is safe to do so.

The governor also said that because there were active retired justices assigned to the court, it would not be shorthanded in Saufley’s absence. Under state law, senior Associate Justice Andrew Mead will assume the duties of chief justice following Saufley’s last day on Tuesday, Mills said.

The law school is in a period of transition following a September 2019 decision by the University of Maine System Board of Trustees to reorganize the school. That move came on the heels of a July 2019 report that recommended sweeping reforms at the school, which in recent years has struggled with budget deficits and operational challenges.

Those organizational changes included, among other reforms, budget independence from the University of Southern Maine and a new structure in which the dean of the law school reports directly to the university chancellor, a responsibility usually reserved for campus presidents.

The governor, herself an attorney and former state attorney general, said she has known Saufley for 30 years and has practiced law before her at all levels. Saufley served as a judge in state district and superior courts before being nominated to the Law Court in 1997 by former Gov. Angus King, an independent. She was reappointed to the high court by Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, in 2009 and by LePage, a Republican, in 2016.

“I have appreciated her perspective and our partnership on critical issues such as the opioid crisis, as well as our collaborative work to strengthen the judicial branch and improve the lives of Maine people,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “At every level she has demonstrated legal acumen and common sense.”

Before serving on the bench, Saufley worked in the Maine Attorney General’s Office as a deputy attorney general.

“Judicial decisions do not mark her tenure as a judge – district, superior, associate and chief,” said former Maine Attorney General James Tierney, now a law professor at Harvard University. “Rather, her career has been marked by an unflagging commitment to common sense justice and a deep love of Maine.”

Above all, Tierney said, Saufley, whom he hired out of law school to work in the Attorney General’s Office, was a problem solver with “keen judgment as to the realities of life in Maine for all of our citizens. …  She will be a great dean.”

Malloy, the UMaine system chancellor, said that Saufley, “in keeping with judicial canons,” would not be publicly discussing her new role as dean until she had officially resigned from the court.

A virtual introduction event for Saufley, with law school students, faculty and staff, and a formal announcement, is being planned for next Wednesday.

 

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