Valerie Stanfill, left, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and Kevin Mattson show off an oil portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on Friday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta. Mattson, whose colleague found the painting at a transfer station about a decade ago and held on to it for years before realizing it is an original, donated the portrait to the state court system. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — An original oil-on-canvas portrait of the first female member of the U.S. Supreme Court, the late Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, was rescued from the trash and now will hang, fittingly, at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta.

It was a colleague of Kevin Mattson, a Gardiner developer, who came across the portrait 10 years ago on a pile of trash at the transfer station in Yarmouth, rescued it and brought it back to the offices of Dirigo Capital, then in Portland.

Now that the portrait will hang in Augusta, Mattson said they’ll miss having the, well, judgmental eyes of O’Connor looking down on them as they work. But once he realized the painting was an original, and possibly an official portrait of O’Connor, he knew the painting should rightfully be turned over to the court system.

He said he and his officemates have felt comforted, if a bit judged, by the painting, which features O’Connor’s intense eyes: It made them feel obligated, in her presence, to always try to do the right thing.

“Sandra Day O’Connor has been judging us with those eyes and a slight smile, you look at her and think, ‘Do the right thing, Kevin,'” Mattson joked. “I find it interesting this was a very trailblazing person in our national history, and a very conservative person. As it hung in our office, it was an inspiration for us.

“We’ve got all these crazy liberals working here but we have respect for the institution of the courts. I want to think we acted just a bit better, due to her presence. She was a very comforting presence in the office, it just felt classier.”


Mattson said they felt like the painting needed more dignity than being left in the trash so they hung it in their office for about a decade, thinking it was likely just a print or reproduction. But one day last year Mattson was looking at it in the sun and realized it was clearly an original oil painting.

He called a lawyer he knew might be able to help assess the painting, Estelle Lavoie, who determined it was by artist Lawrence Williams, a celebrity painter known for his portraits of U.S. presidents and first ladies, many of whom he painted from official photographs at the Library of Congress.

The signature of painter Lawrence Williams can be seen at the bottom of a portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, shown Friday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta, where the donated painting will soon hang. Williams was known for his portraits of U.S. presidents and first ladies, many of whom he painted from official photographs at the Library of Congress. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Lavoie, in a letter to Gov. Janet Mills offering the painting to the state, said: “The portrait of Justice O’Connor appears to be a very good likeness and was probably painted not long after she began her service on the Supreme Court in the fall of 1981.”

Lavoie noted that O’Connor, who died in December of last year, “served as an icon to women and girls at the time who came to understand that they, too, could aspire to serve on the highest court in the land. In all events, a better home is certainly to be desired for this portrait of the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court who served as an inspiration to so many.”

Mattson said Lavoie’s research indicated the painting was likely an official portrait of O’Connor done shortly after she was nominated to the country’s highest court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Valerie Stanfill, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, who accepted the painting from Mattson on Friday, said the portrait will probably be hung somewhere on the fourth floor of the judicial center, where judges have their offices. She said it should be mounted in a conference room used by judges and be installed behind her seat, so when they meet, they’ll see O’Connor behind her, looking them over. She said O’Connor would then continue to look over her colleagues, long after Stanfill herself is gone.


“From one justice to another, it’s an inspiration,” Stanfill said of the painting of the trailblazing woman. “We could use some inspiration. I love the story, that it was just found, and now it has a home.”

Stanfill said the days of women having to struggle to obtain positions in the judicial system “are not that long ago,” and she and other women working in the legal field in Maine recall hearing of how Caroline Glassman, appointed as Maine’s first female member of the state supreme court by late Gov. Joseph Brennan in 1983, struggled to get a job as a lawyer because of her gender.

O’Connor’s portrait won’t hang in a courtroom, as, Stanfill said, all the judges with portraits hanging in courtrooms there are Maine judges.

Mattson said so far no one knows how the painting ended up discarded at the transfer station. Some speculated it could have been stolen at some point, so whoever had it didn’t dare try and sell it. He said his theory is someone upset by a decision by O’Connor, a conservative justice who nonetheless sometimes sided with her more liberal peers, including some landmark court rulings on abortion, threw it away.

He said he didn’t consider selling the painting, because he feels as a possible official portrait, it belongs to the government and should be returned to the judicial system.

The painting has a less-than-an-inch-long tear in it, but otherwise appears in fairly good condition.

Mattson said it’s one of those paintings in which the subject’s eyes seem to follow you around the room, as if they are always watching you.

He said the portrait will be missed at their office, but workers there may feel at least a small bit of relief, of no longer being watched — and judged.

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