The April 12 death of former Maine Chief Superior Court Justice and U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty II ended a distinguished 50-year legal career and caused me, in addition to a sense of personal loss, to contemplate the vital importance of trial judges in this country and state.  The pivotal role played by Minnesota Judge Peter Cahill in the recently concluded trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis policeman convicted for the murder George Floyd, reinforced my thinking.

Few people outside the legal system can truly understand the critical role that trial judges play in furthering the goal of an orderly, predictable and fair society — a goal that is often capsulized in the slogans “equal justice under the law” and the “rule of law.”  Nor can they appreciate the immense difficulty of the job.

Delahanty, or “Tom,” as he preferred to be called when he wasn’t wearing a robe, was one of the best I’ve ever had the privilege of practicing before. He was intelligent, decisive, articulate, even-handed and possessed of that sense of gravitas known as “judicial demeanor.” And with extensive experience as a district attorney, U.S attorney and lawyer in private practice, he thoroughly understood the justice system.

Most public attention paid to the judiciary is lavished on the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose names and voting records are well known and whose words and facial expressions during oral argument are as closely analyzed by court watchers as the entrails inspected by Greek oracles to foretell the future.

Yet only a tiny fraction of cases heard in the trial courts ever reaches either the U.S. Supreme Court or the top appellate courts of the 50 states, including Maine’s. The number of criminal and civil cases filed or reactivated each year in this country is estimated to be somewhere north of 100 million. In comparison to this colossal statistic, consider that the U.S. Supreme Court hears and decides a mere 75 to 85 cases a year, while in 2020 the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued only 144 opinions.

Justice at the street level, therefore, falls to trial justices. It is they who perform the myriad functions on which the public and litigants rely, tasks which have profound consequences for public safety, individual liberties, property rights and fair compensation for those wrongfully damaged or injured.

During Justice Delahanty’s tenure on the Superior Court (1983 to 2010), Superior Court judges had almost exclusive responsibility for handling criminal felony cases and conducting the jury trials often associated with them. (The subsequent adoption of a unified criminal docket has given more shared responsibility to lower-level District Court judges).  Higher money-stakes civil suits in medical malpractice, personal injury, business and real estate disputes, as well as requests for injunctions and petitions seeking review of governmental acts were also the province of the Superior Court.

The sports term umpire or referee is often used as an analogy to describe a judge’s function but that hardly gives the job its due.  It involves more than just calling balls, strikes and fouls in baseball, or touchdowns, offsides and pass interference in football.

A trial judge has to master a much bigger playbook, consisting of federal and state constitutions and statutes, administrative regulations, and procedural and evidentiary rules, and has to juggle a lot more balls at the same time.

On any given day, Delahanty might have heard scores of criminal pleas, entertained requests for setting bail or bail revocation, heard and decided pre- and post-trial motions, issued temporary restraining orders and injunctions, supervised jury selection from a pool of 100 or more prospective jurors, presided over a jury trial or a jury-waived (bench) trial, sentenced criminal defendants or issued written opinions, among numerous other tasks.  And rarely would he have had the luxury of just focusing on just one case a day.

In addition to purely legal tasks, the job also involved attending to numerous administrative details that ranged from ensuring that potential disruptions were quelled in the courtroom to making sure that jurors got sufficient time for lunch. And all had to be done in a firm, yet unthreatening, manner, with careful, but decisive, consideration, and in a way that made participants in the process feel they were being given a fair shake and treated with dignity.

In an era when public trust in, and respect for, established institutions like Congress, the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts has significantly eroded, the  judiciary still commands that trust and respect to a considerable degree.

Part of the reason is probably due to the trappings of court — the judge’s black robe, the requirement that the judge be addressed as “your honor,” and the custom of having everyone rise when the judge enters the courtroom. These traditions harken back to medieval England, when knights, barons and other notables were addressed as “your honor” and when black or colored robes (often made of silk and fringed with fur collars) were worn as a sign of the king’s favor.

But it would take more than costume and custom for the judiciary to command respect if judges weren’t doing their job properly. The vast majority carry out their duties diligently and impartially, oblivious to public criticism and pressure, including criticism and pressure during the Trump presidency which emanated directly from the Oval Office.

That’s what makes trial judges an essential pillar of democracy and worthy of being addressed as “your honor.”

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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