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Supremely qualified people keep making history. This week, the Maine Senate confirmed Judge Rick Lawrence to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Last week, the U.S. Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawrence and Jackson have proven themselves, in their confirmation processes and over the course of long careers, as thoughtful and diligent jurists. They also will bring new and valuable perspectives to their new roles, making history as the first Black justice in Maine and the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, respectively.
Lawrence and Jackson are their own people with their own journeys and accomplishments. But we can’t help but note the similar history made in each of these two moments, less than a week apart, delivered by two extremely qualified judges.
Lawrence’s 20-year record as a District Court judge spoke for itself. And his strength as nominee was displayed not only in his unanimous confirmation vote, but also in his eloquent and powerful testimony before the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary.
He explained how his parents moved from the Deep South to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, after World War II — the same town where scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois was born. Lawrence recalled childhood visits to the South when his family was denied service at restaurants, relegated to separate restrooms and forced to search for motels where they would actually be allowed to stay overnight. He described being “emotionally transfixed and psychologically affirmed” while watching the civil rights movement growing up and “offended by the vehement opposition” to it, and eventually being drawn to the court cases that shaped the scope and impact of new federal civil rights laws.
“Those events shaped my impression of lawyers and the courts, and fostered my view of both as powerful forces that can play a positive role in people’s lives,” Lawrence told the Judiciary Committee on April 8. “My interest in the law, and thoughts about someday becoming a lawyer, grew out of those roots.”
After last week’s hearing, as reported by the Bangor Daily News’ Judy Harrison, Lawrence told reporters that he hopes his nomination (and now confirmation) will inspire other Black lawyers in Maine to seek judicial appointments and help bring more diversity to the judiciary. We hope so, too.
“I hope you’ll forgive me for pausing briefly to make a modest attempt to put today in some degree of perspective,” Lawrence said in his testimony. “In October of 1844, Maine became the first state in the Union to admit an African American to the practice of law when it granted admission to Macon Bolling Allen. Interestingly, just a few years later in 1848, attorney Allen also became the first African American jurist in the United States when he was appointed as a justice of the peace in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 2000, it was my distinct privilege to be the first African American appointed to the bench in the State of Maine. In 2022, I would be both humbled and extraordinarily honored to be the first African American appointed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.”
Gov. Janet Mills, who nominated Lawrence, said she is “proud that lawmakers have recognized Judge Lawrence’s extensive legal experience, measured temperament, strong intellect, and proven commitment to upholding the law and administering justice impartially.” Lawrence is replacing Justice Ellen Gorman after her retirement, and will be sworn in this month.
“In closing, I respectfully submit to you that my personal life experiences, the breadth of my work experience prior to practicing law, the very nature of my legal practice, and my experience on the District Court bench all demonstrate that I am ready and able to assume the responsibilities of an associate justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court,” Lawrence added at last week’s hearing. “I hope the Joint Committee concurs with that assessment.”
They did. So did the entire Maine Senate. And for what it’s worth, we do, too.