Madame Chief Justice
Leigh I. Saufley may be the most mysterious public person in Maine. She wields enormous official power, leads one of the three major branches of government, and has an impact on the lives of almost everyone in the state. Yet she can walk down any street without being recognized, and it's doubtful that more than a minuscule portion of the state's residents outside the legal profession know her name.
Saufley is chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. And don't you dare compare her to Judge Judy.
Chief justice means more than sitting in the middle of the seven jurists on the state's highest legal panel and holding the gavel. In Maine, the chief justice oversees the administration of the entire judicial system, supervises fifty-three active and active-retired District and Superior Court judges, and serves as the judiciary's chief contact with the legislature and the governor's office. Saufley is both an appellate judge and CEO of a $54-million organization with 450 employees. She is also a judicial activist — a phrase she herself would never use — who is bringing Maine's court system into the twenty-first century.
In more than four years as chief justice, Saufley has refocused the Maine court system to better deal with domestic violence and family law issues and strengthened the special adult and juvenile drug courts, an interest that reflects the years she served as an assistant attorney general for the Maine Department of Human Services.
She has pushed the legislature relentlessly — yet with such good humor and logic that no one complains — to establish a separate business court first suggested by her predecessor and to increase the number of judges. And this year she finally won some of the money required to upgrade courthouse security, a need highlighted by the fact that metal detectors at some facilities remain shoved against a wall for lack of people to operate them.
"What keeps me here is the opportunity to change the system to better respond to what the public needs today," she says, and then immediately laughs. "Wow, doesn't that sound high-minded? But in fact the courts throughout the country have changed pretty dramatically over the past fifteen years as legislators and governors have looked to the courts to help solve some of the really intractable problems of human life, like broken families and drugs and alcohol."
Meeting those needs has required some fairly dramatic changes in the court system in Maine, Saufley explains. "When Chief Justice Daniel Wathen [her predecessor] was here, the focus was on meeting the needs of families, and he oversaw the creation of the Family Division, which has been a godsend."
Saufley has built on those changes by increasing the attention to domestic violence and by creating drug treatment courts, including family drug treatment courts. "We are shifting the way we allocate resources so that families and cases involving violence receive first judicial resources," she notes, "rather than whatever happens to be built into a schedule that was not put together with those thoughts in mind."
"She is the new breed of chief justice in this country," points out Senator Barry Hobbins, the Saco Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee. "I hope so, anyway. She's got great integrity, great wit, and she's politically shrewd. She's engaging and gets along great with legislators. She just brings a refreshing openness to the position."
Hobbins, who was first elected to the legislature in 1972 as a twenty-one-year-old college student and has served on the Judiciary Committee for so long his profile should be carved into the committee room floor, says Saufley brings an instinctive understanding of the interface among the law and government and politics. "She meets with the Judiciary Committee [which controls her budget] much more than other judges did," he points out. "We're in changing times, and she has adapted very well to them."
Hobbins quips that, should Saufley ever decide to run for political office, "she absolutely would be electable. My only fear would be that she wouldn't run as a Democrat. I know I wouldn't run against her."
Saufley is harder to find than a Saturday night parking spot on Exchange Street. In fact, nowhere in Portland is there any indication that Leigh Ingalls Saufley actually exists. She isn't listed in the directory inside the entrance of the Cumberland County Courthouse. Neither her name nor her title is on the glass door of the suite of offices she occupies. (Indeed, a casual passerby would be excused for thinking someone had left the lights on in a storage closet.) Her assistant buzzes visitors through the locked entrance only after they pass muster on a closed-circuit camera.
In person, Saufley is gregarious, with a self-deprecating wit and a ready laugh. Now fifty-one, married to a Portland lawyer with two children in college, she is both the youngest chief justice — just forty-seven when named in 2001 by then-Governor Angus King— and the first woman to hold the post. She insists that the person most surprised by her elevation to the top of Maine's legal world is herself.
A South Portland native who still roots for the Red Riots at every opportunity, Saufley graduated from the University of Maine in Orono in 1976 with a degree in psychology. "I was not sure what to do with my life," she confesses. She had no intention of going into law. "My family background was nursing and engineering," she recalls. "The law was not dinner-table conversation in our house."
As an idealist in her young twenties, Saufley says, she wanted to change the world. "I went to law school to learn the tools I needed to do that," she muses. "I never thought I'd be using them to change the world of the law."
In 1980 she graduated from the University of Maine School of Law and within a year won a post in the Maine Attorney General's Office. "I was working directly on family-related law, which was my first interest," she recalls. " I got to work in the courts and with policy. It was a wonderful opportunity."
In 1990 Governor John "Jock" McKernan appointed Saufley to the District Court bench. Three years later he elevated her to the Superior Court. She was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court in 1997 as an associate justice.
"Her background in both the District and Superior courts weighed heavily in Governor King's decision to name her chief justice," explains Daniel Wathen, who stepped down as chief justice in 2001 in a short-lived bid for the gubernatorial nomination. "She's a very good judge who writes well and thinks clearly."
Wathen notes that prior to the 1970s the chief justice oversaw only the other judges in the system, while the counties were responsible for providing courthouses and staffs. When the state took over the system, it placed the entire organization under the chief justice's authority. "At least 50 percent of the job now is administrative," he says, "and it involves you in a number of issues where you walk a pretty narrow line between being a judge and an advocate."
Saufley admits the administrative demands caught her by surprise, "and in great part I blame Dan Wathen for that," she chuckles. "Dan was a brilliant jurist, but as an administrator he made wonderful changes in the court system and he made it all look easy. There are many late nights in this office where I grumble and curse Dan Wathen for making it look so simple."
Legislators can now almost predict the point in Saufley's annual State of the Judiciary speech, which she gives each February, where she asks for more funding for court administration. "There are very few administrators in the Maine court system to do what in other states is done by whole squadrons of administrators," she explains, "and the result is that judges who should be focused entirely on adjudicating in many instances have to be administrators as well."
She points out that neighboring New Hampshire budgets $15 million a year more for its far smaller judiciary than Maine offers. She spends so much of her day on administrative duties, she says, that she reserves nights and weekends for reading legal briefs and reviewing arguments for court cases. "My running joke is that I do my day job at night," she quips.
Of course, it's difficult to build public support for increased funding when most of your natural constituency is criminals. Saufley has started routinely inviting legislators into courthouses to sit with judges and to talk with attorneys about the issues facing both the judicial system itself and the changing role it has in the larger world. She and other judges now regularly speak to civic groups, such as Kiwanis and chambers of commerce. Last year Saufley took the court on the road to Caribou, partly in honor of the newest member of the court, Aroostook County native Warren M. Silver, and partly to give the public a better understanding of what the court does.
"We went to the Performing Arts Center in Caribou," she explains. "We heard four or five cases in front of students from area schools. Before we were done as many as six hundred students and teachers were able to watch an appellate argument to the Supreme Judicial Court and then ask questions of the lawyers afterward. We're going to be doing more of that this fall."
Which brings her back to Judge Judy, the popular television reality show jurist. "One of my constant goals is to disabuse members of the public of the idea that courts in Maine have anything to do with Judge Judy, which they do not," Saufley says. Television, she offers, "gives an awful lot of bad information. . . . The courts are depicted in a variety of different ways on TV that cause people to have inaccurate or unrealistic expectations of what will occur. I keep telling people Law & Order is entertainment."
Appointments to Maine's highest court don't generally attract the same amount of public attention and political pressure as those to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in fact Saufley discourages the comparison. It would be more appropriate, she says, to compare Maine's system to those of other states, and in that regard she firmly believes Maine has the best method around.
"One of the reasons [appointments aren't] politicized is that judges in Maine aren't elected," she notes. "We do not go through the somewhat undignified process of having judges collect money [for campaigns] and advertise themselves [as they must in many other states]. That's a very difficult prospect for someone who then has to be an impartial jurist."
All Maine judges are appointed by the governor and approved by the Maine Senate for seven-year terms, rather than being appointed for life, as is the case in other states, including neighboring New Hampshire. "We are aware that we are accountable for being ethical, hard-working, and unbiased," Saufley explains. "It's a wonderful system, although I never think so in the year I come up for reappointment. Every seventh year I wish for the New Hampshire system."
The changing role for the judiciary is something the public is only beginning to be aware of, Saufley adds. "For centuries judges in English and American jurisprudence were people who sat silently at the bench, listened to a presentation of facts, applied the law to those facts, and moved to the next case. Judges were not active in the social issues of their times and were in fact discouraged from being active in those kinds of issues."
These days, "judges have to be much more aware of the issues that are plaguing their communities," Saufley explains. "And they have to be prepared to be involved in finding solutions."
Wathen applauds the increased involvement, so long as it is handled properly, and the move toward openness. "I think it's really desirable that the courts be as open and transparent as they can be," he offers. "That's true of the rest of government, too, of course, but the courts are in a unique situation. It's a great job, and the only instruction is to do the right thing."
That aspect of the job has been its greatest attraction for Saufley. "For many lawyers our lives revolve around finding ways to give our clients the best representation for the choices that the client makes, not that the lawyer makes," she explains. "When you come to the bench, your job, within the law, is to do the right thing. And that is both freeing and terrifying, because the responsibility when you've made a decision that affects people's lives is huge. It is the ability to do what you think is the right thing. That makes it a wonderful career."
Despite Barry Hobbins' comment about her electability, Saufley insists she has no plans beyond the next case and the next budget hearing. Indeed, not planning her next move has been something of a hallmark. "I haven't exactly planned to be where I am now, and so far it's working out for me," she says with a laugh. "I think all of us should have a job where we get up in the morning and we're excited to go to work. This is a job I really want to do. This has been my gift from the universe for two decades now."