The statue of Melville Fuller, who served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen Tuesday in front of old Kennebec County courthouse on the corner of State and Winthrop streets in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — Should the statue of a former U.S. Supreme Court chief justice born in Maine be moved from its spot outside the Kennebec County Courthouse?

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court is asking county officials to consider doing that, as monuments across the U.S. tied to the country’s racist past are being torn down or moved out of public view.

The statue outside the county courthouse depicts Melville Fuller, born in Augusta and a graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, who served for 21 years as a chief justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1896, while Fuller was chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court when the Plessy v. Ferguson decision maintained racial segregation with the “separate but equal” doctrine, allowing discrimination to continue. Though Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the opinion in the 7-1 decision, Fuller joined the majority. The decision was overturned in 1954 by the high court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

A letter from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, dated Aug. 5, has asked the Kennebec County commissioners to consider whether the statue should stay where it is outside the courthouse or be moved to a new location.

In 2013, the bronze statue of Fuller was erected in front of the courthouse, a gift of his relative Robert Fuller, a retired Augusta attorney. He provided all of the funding for the estimated $40,000 cost of the project.

The letter, signed by Acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead on behalf of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, states all Maine judicial officers were asked to share their thoughts about whether having the Fuller statue as the only monument to the state’s justice system “is consistent with the values that the Maine Judicial Branch aspires to stand for.”

“The responses revealed an overwhelming consensus that the presence of the statue in its location is not consistent with our values, because the association between Chief Justice Fuller and the Plessy decision is so profound, and Maine judges do not want to be linked to that association,” the letter states. “Given our commitment to racial justice, we should take every opportunity to examine and re-examine our positions, policies and practices.

“We believe that the statue should not continue to be the monument that members of the public see as they approach the courthouse,” the letter continues.

Kennebec County Administrator Robert Devlin said no formal discussions have taken place yet, but “it certainly will become one soon.” He said he didn’t know when that would take place, but said the letter would “open up the debate.”

“It is on county property, a gift to the county by Bob Fuller,” Devlin said.

When reached for comment about the status of the statue, Robert Fuller Jr. said he was referring all questions about the matter to his attorney, who he said he was still in the process of retaining.

The statue of Melville Fuller, who served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen Tuesday in front of old Kennebec County courthouse on the corner of State and Winthrop streets in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Kennebec County Commissioner Patsy Crockett, who represents the District 1 municipalities of Augusta, Chelsea, China, Manchester, Sidney, Vassalboro and Windsor, said the first she had heard of the court’s request was when she was contacted by a TV station Monday.

“I did not even have a letter,” she said. “We had heard a little talk that the chief justices were thinking about contacting us, but that was the extent of it. There was nothing else; no phone call, no letter, nothing. Probably about 15 minutes after I hung up with the reporter (Monday), I got the letter and it was dated Aug. 5.”

Crockett said she wished the commissioners had been a part of the discussion that took place between the justices.

“It leaves us wondering what was said, what brought this up,” she said, adding that since the statue was erected in 2013, before she was commissioner, she’s unclear on what the discussion was at that time.

Julie Finn, legislative analyst for the Maine Judicial Branch, said she wasn’t sure “who exactly raised the issue,” but said it was a few weeks ago.

In the letter to the commissioners, a footnote indicated that Justice Catherine Connors “did not participate in discussions of this issue or in the drafting of this letter.” Asked the circumstances around that, Finn said she was unsure, but said when the court issues decisions they note the justices who do not take part in the deliberations.

“The Supreme Judicial Court will not be commenting further on their letter,” she wrote in an email. “It speaks for itself.”

Justice Joseph Jabar said the court had some inquiries asking whether the justices were going to do anything about the statue. He said the matter was raised because statues of people with connections to racist policies have been torn down in other cities across the country.

“We were confronted with the question, asking us if we were going to do anything about it,” said Jabar, who added that no threats had been made about tearing the Fuller statue down.

The letter acknowledges that the Judicial Branch doesn’t own the statue nor the location, and its members have no control over its location. It also encouraged the Kennebec County commissioners to undertake a communitywide review, “with the ultimate goal of assuring what is outside the Kennebec County Courthouse and the Capital Judicial Center upholds the principles and values that the Maine judiciary seeks to uphold inside the courthouse.”

As for how the county will proceed, Crockett was unsure. She said she wanted to discuss the issue with the other commissioners — Nancy Rines and George Jabar II — to determine the best way to get input on what to do with the statue.

“Like any issue that comes before the commissioners, we will hear both sides,” Crockett said. “Then the commissioners will vote on what to do.”

George Jabar II did not immediately return calls or an email seeking comment Tuesday or Wednesday.

Asked what she would consider when deciding what to do with the Fuller statue, Crockett said she would look at his overall performance.

“He was on the judiciary, approximately some 20-odd years, so I would look at all of the decisions combined,” she said. “The fact is this one decision, we’ve learned now that is not the decision that would be made today. I think all of us would agree to that. But, back when he made the decision, people felt that was a good decision. I am in no way saying that is a good decision now, but they said it was a good decision at the time.”

Rines, who represents the District 2, said she would take others’ opinions into consideration when making a decision about what to do with the statue.

“I guess I’ll listen to the input from whoever wants to have input. I think the more the merrier,” she said. “That’s what I’ll be looking at: What’s the issue and what are the options for dealing with it?”

Asked if she thought the statue should be moved, Rines said she didn’t know.

“Is that what people want? That’s what I’m waiting to find out. What do people want?” she said. “The court has said they want to discuss options for that statue.

“Apparently they have had discussions about this, and we haven’t been privy to those,” Rines added. “I don’t know what they’re thinking because they haven’t said, other than they think some discussions should take place. I’m all for that.”

Justice Joseph Jabar didn’t want to speak for the other justices, saying the court’s position on the issue “will be coming out soon, I think,” but said he thought it should be moved from the front of the courthouse.

“I think we should do something about moving it,” he said. “I’m certainly not talking about tearing it down or anything like that. But, with respect with what’s going on in the country and with respect to the people that donated it, I think we should move it someplace other than the front of the courthouse.

“It’s not up to me; it’s not my decision,” Jabar added. “But I think it should be moved.”

Rines, who was a commissioner when the statue was put in place, said there were no objections raised at that time.

“We didn’t see it as any different than having the pictures up of all the other judges that have served Maine,” she said, referring to framed photos of Maine judges in the Superior Court, “except that it was a statue.”

When the statue was erected in 2013, Justice Joseph Jabar said Fuller’s position on the Plessy V. Ferguson ruling was noted.

“That was secondary to the fact he was born in Maine and died in Maine, and other things he did,” he said, adding that it is notable for someone from Maine to become chief justice of the Supreme Court.

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