Though it is still safe to say there is no one like Ruth Foster, last week’s statement that she was the first woman from Hancock County to serve in the legislature was incorrect. That honor goes to Republican Natalie Shepard of Stonington, who served two terms in the House (1959-62).
Described by a newspaper as a “young, attractive grandmother,” Shepard first won her seat in a special election in 1959 following the sudden death of her husband, Rep. Myron Shepard, at just 46 years of age. He was in his second term at the time.
In addition to the “first woman” honor, Stonington also was the birthplace of Sumner Peter Mills, progenitor of the legendary Mills family. Mills served in the legislature from 1903-08. Both his son and grandson followed in his legislative footsteps, and other descendants have served with distinction in various state offices.
Having set that record straight, and then some, let us turn to another Mainer with a distinguished public record, even if he is not from Stonington. He is Joseph Jabar, a justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and the subject and recipient of a letter from Gov. Paul LePage dated Feb. 13 of this year.
It was a letter unlike any other in the memory of many a political historian, leaving most readers gobsmacked. And since the governor made the letter public, there were plenty of readers.
The letter opened with “Dear Associate Justice Jabar,” but it was all downhill from there. The gist of it was that when he first took office, LePage “did not intend to reappoint you as justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.” It was the governor’s wish to “find a more conservative justice to balance out the court.”
Fair enough. That is the governor’s privilege. But then came this: “At the time, you told me that you had only one year left to reach 20 years of service, which would have provided you with a lucrative, taxpayer-funded pension. You asked that I allow you to continue until you reached the 20-year mark, at which time you would step aside so I could nominate another justice.”
Wow. The governor acknowledged his willingness to pave the way to the “lucrative, taxpayer-funded pension” but now says the judge “reneged on our arrangement.” An arrangement to which there was a witness, in the person of the governor’s chief legal counsel at the time, Avery Day.
Day left the administration at the end of 2016, the fifth general counsel to do so during the LePage administration. His aim was to start a private practice and, according to a Portland Press Herald interview, to “steer clear of politics as much as possible.” He has yet to comment publicly as a witness to the Jabar promise to quit the bench.
Jabar, in the opinion of the governor, failed to uphold the standards of “intelligence, integrity and good moral character” expected of him by the people of Maine, and the governor felt it was his “duty” to advise the people accordingly. Hence the letter.
Who is this justice whom the governor accuses of a “lack of character and an example of dishonesty?” Well, he served eight years on the Superior Court bench (nominated by independent Gov. Angus King) before being nominated by Gov. John Baldacci to serve on the Supreme Court. The Maine Legislature’s Judiciary Committee endorsed him unanimously, and he was confirmed by the Maine Senate. His nomination was supported by the state bar association and the trial lawyers’ association.
A Mainer through and through, Jabar attended Colby College and the University of Maine School of Law. He served as district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset Counties. His bio on the Supreme Court website says he served as chair of the Executive Clemency Board, was a Workers’ Compensation commissioner, chaired the Juvenile Code Revision Commission and served on the board of governors for the Maine Trial Lawyers Association.
The reward for all his years of service is to be maligned and humiliated by Maine’s chief executive. Shabby? It seems so. It is just so jaw-dropping for a governor to air this kind of dirty laundry so publicly. Yes, the public does have a right to know about the conduct of members of the judiciary, but the conduct indicted by the governor is only his side of the story. One wonders how the justice might describe the situation.
In an exercise of extreme circumspection, there has been no public response from Jabar or anyone else in the judiciary. This sort of feud between the administrative and legislative branches would be just another day at the office, but it is rare, if not unheard of, for the chief executive to call out a judge so harshly.