Leigh Saufley, new dean of the University of Maine School of Law, in the law library on April 22. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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The April 15 announcement that Leigh Ingalls Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court for the past 18 years, would become dean of the University of Maine School of Law was the first major state government news unrelated to coronavirus since the Legislature abruptly adjourned a month earlier.

By all accounts, Saufley appears the perfect choice, as Chancellor Dannel Malloy pointed out in his online introduction from Orono, which Saufley joined from the Portland campus. Malloy called it “an extremely opportune moment, to be seized and not missed.”

Saufley is among the most admired state chiefs in the country. Her annual State of the Judiciary addresses to the Legislature are must-see events, and she has had an ambitious administrative agenda that produced three vast new integrated judicial centers in Penobscot, Kennebec, and now York counties, with construction to begin soon in Biddeford.

James Erwin Jr., chairman of the UMaine System board of trustees and an attorney at Pierce Atwood in Portland, emphasized the steely underside of Saufley’s winning personality when he said, “Having been exclusively on the receiving end of your probing questions, I’m frankly not all that sorry to see you stepping aside from the Law Court.”

Saufley graduated from South Portland High School, did her undergraduate work at the University of Maine, earned her law degree from the Portland law school, and did path-breaking legal work for child protection with the attorney general’s office in the 1980s. She was appointed to the District Court, then Superior and Supreme Court benches, and at 47 was the youngest chief justice in Maine history when she was appointed by Gov. Angus King in 2001.

Yet it took time to convince Saufley to apply for the dean’s position, and, once interviewed, to decide whether it would be a good fit.

Saufley had served so long as chief justice that many identified her with the role. Had she completed her third seven-year term in 2022, she would have been the Maine’s longest-serving chief. Instead, she finished second, falling short only of John Appleton of Bangor, who took office in 1862 and retired in 1883.

Saufley said she couldn’t pass up becoming part of the University of Maine School of Law. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

In an interview, Saufley said she was aware of the history, and of some colleagues who “were rooting for me to go from the youngest to the longest.” The thought occupied her “for about five minutes,” she said – the opportunity “to become part of the law school was something I couldn’t pass up.”

Still, she hesitated. Saufley has abundant administrative experience, managing a unified court system that has 518 employees, but also expects unusually hands-on work from the chief justice. “I had never taught, or been part of academia,” she said. “I was in awe of the work professors were doing in national and international law reviews.”

Peter Mills, former state senator and now director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, was on the search committee, and said he was impressed with the 38 applicants; half received personal interviews. “There were some extraordinary people who were convinced this was a remarkably attractive job,” he said. “There are only 200 law schools, and this opportunity doesn’t come along every day.”

When he thought of Saufley’s State of the Judiciary addresses, though, her countless visits to Maine high schools, and her handling of cases and lawyers, Mills was convinced he needed to reach out. At a meeting with Saufley and the university system’s general counsel, James Thelen, Mills made his pitch – and Saufley was interested.

Earlier, she had served a brief stint on the law school’s Futures Committee, which recommended – as the system’s Board of Trustees later agreed – to have the new dean report to the chancellor and not, as previously, to the University of Southern Maine president. The Futures Committee was convened, after budget cuts starting in 2014 that some believed threatened the school’s accreditation, to answer tough questions about its survival.

“In the end, I decided that we can’t be a state without a law school,” Saufley said. “And I didn’t want to decide later that I’d passed up the chance to do what I could to help.”

UMS Chancellor Dannel Malloy on Saufley: “I knew she would be a wonderful dean.” (Courtesy UMS)

Malloy was also thinking that Saufley should apply. At Gov. Janet Mills’ State of the State address in January, he said he was “intrigued” that the chief justice attended, and decided, “just the way she presented herself, I knew she would be a wonderful dean.”

Malloy, who took office only nine months earlier, is a former two-term governor of Connecticut and was well aware of the financial challenges facing the university system – even before the pandemic scrambled everyone’s plans. Having a law school dean who knows virtually every member of the bar, and of the Legislature, could be crucial to competing for the scarce resources needed to rebuild the school’s faculty and programs.

“Don’t think I hadn’t considered that,” he said.

As for Saufley’s lack of academic background, the interim dean she succeeded, Dmitri Bam said, “There are different models for law school deans. You don’t have time to teach, and there are former deans still on the faculty” – himself included. Of Saufley, he said, “There are strengths she brings, in terms of connections that are broad and deep, that I didn’t have.”

Bam didn’t apply for the permanent job and said he’s eager to get back to full-time teaching. He and Saufley as deans illustrate the tight-knit nature of the Maine legal community.

Among the prominent cases of Saufley’s time on the Law Court was a 2017 advisory opinion to the Legislature about ranked-choice voting, in which she marshaled a unanimous opinion finding the voter-enacted referendum unconstitutional as it applied to state offices in the November election. Bam wrote a much-quoted amicus brief arguing the opposite position.

“I still think it was constitutional,” he said, “but the court has spoken.”

Those who know Saufley well have few qualms about how quickly she will adapt to a new environment. Bam, who studied the candidates closely, professed no doubts, saying that Saufley is a quick study, and sizes up new situations with discernment.

“Faculty and staff make some waves, and do some wrangling, just like a courtroom,” he said. “She takes it in stride. She’s funny, and charming, and brings a lot of people to her side by her personality – and wins over other people by her talent and hard work.’’

Donald Alexander, recently retired from the Supreme Judicial Court, served with Saufley through nearly her entire tenure, and said he’s still in awe of her work ethic. Despite an administrative workload that’s a full-time job in itself, she was always ready for judicial conferences, he said.

“I’d like to think I was well prepared,” Alexander said, “but she was often better prepared, and had more insight into cases than I did.”

Peter Mills said some of the value Saufley brings will be helpful in recruiting new students – a significant challenge for Maine, since other law schools often offer more in grants and scholarships.

“When a student is being interviewed, and the former chief justice comes in to tell them why they ought to attend,” he said, “we’re usually going to make that sale.”

That prediction will soon be tested. And at least one trustee is pleased that Saufley will, through Malloy, be reporting to the board: Jim Erwin closed his introductory remarks by saying, “And now, finally, I get to ask the questions.”  

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist and former editor of Maine Times.

University of Maine School of Law Professor Deirdre M. Smith calls Leigh Saufley “one of the most highly regarded, admired and well-liked public figures in Maine.” (Courtesy Maine Law)

Portland Law: Past, present, and future

There’s been a law school in Portland since the late 1940s, but it only became state-supported in 1962, and was accredited three years later, under Dean Edward Godfrey. It was formally merged with what was then the University of Portland, then became part of the University of Southern Maine with the addition of the Gorham campus. 

It’s always been affiliated, however, with the entire University of Maine System  – something not always apparent either to prospective students from out of state, or even to Mainers themselves, according to Dmitri Bam, who just stepped down as interim dean. The new governance structure, with Dean Leigh Saufley reporting directly to Chancellor Dannel Malloy, is among a series of steps intended to put the law school back on the map.

Saufley singled out Bam’s contributions during the year after the departure of the former dean, Danielle Conway. She said Bam has been “hugely helpful” and cited his recruiting trip to Aroostook County that brought new students to the Portland campus.

Greater visibility within the state, including at the Legislature, will be vital to the school’s future, Bam said.

“Too many people don’t know what we do, that we’re involved with the other campuses,” he said. Professors teach undergraduate courses there, and a “three-plus-three” program allows undergraduate seniors to enroll early.

“Showing the value we add to the state is a big part of what we need to do,” he said.

Deirdre M. Smith, who has taught at the law school since 2004, is among the most community-oriented professors, leading the clinic that matches students with clients who need free legal assistance. Don Alexander, now retired from the Supreme Judicial Court, praised Smith’s work, but said much more is needed, contrasting such a community orientation with “the more ethereal, theoretical work” of law review articles.

The courts, Alexander said, have a need for help in writing rules and establishing procedures that law professors are well suited to provide. He expects Saufley will help rebuild those ties.

Smith said the Futures Committee’s succinct report aided the search for a dean, including its presentation of signature efforts, including a nationally recognized program in information privacy, as well as immigration and the brand-new field of Arctic law.

“It was a heartening response,” Smith said of the candidates who emerged. “We had no idea what to expect.”

Crucial to the law school’s success is the ability to attract and retain staff, and it received a down payment from the trustees’ authorization to hire four new faculty members. Although there have been two retirements, the net gain of two positions is a start, Smith said. The 2019 Futures report said the law school, which had 21 full-time equivalent positions in 2010, lost 4.5 positions over the next eight years.

Smith said she’s encouraged, and considers Saufley “one of the most highly regarded, admired and well-liked public figures in Maine.” Even “in the midst of dealing with the pandemic,” she said, “her calendar is packed. She’s meeting with students and professors every day.” 

Smith said she can’t wait to see what it will be like when the campus reopens.

— Douglas Rooks

First day in court

Like many of Leigh Saufley’s colleagues, Kermit V. Lipez – now an active retired judge on the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals – is profuse in his praise. 

“Athletes are sometimes described as naturals. They were born to excel. I think of Leigh as a natural. She was born to be a great chief justice,” Lipez said about Saufley’s 23 years on the Supreme Judicial Court. “She had it all – brilliance, vision, attention to detail, the ability to inspire, empathy, political savvy, a wicked sense of humor, and a common touch. Now she will bring those great talents to her new job.”

Judge Kermit V. Lipez of the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals was one of Leigh Saufley’s colleagues on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Lipez served briefly with Saufley on the state Superior Court before he was promoted to the SJC, then again for eight months after her promotion to the high court – a day he remembers well.

It seems Maine’s leading judicial minds had a hazing ritual. For Saufley, it was her first day at the judges’ conference, where they discuss and decide cases.

By tradition, the newest judge speaks first, the others through seniority, with the chief justice – then Dan Wathen – having the last word. As Lipez recalled it, “Leigh stated her position in what she thought was a straightforward case. The rest of us followed with our comments, such as ‘With all due respect, I think Leigh’s position is indefensible,’ or ‘With all due respect, I think Leigh fundamentally misunderstands the case.’ Or even, ‘With all due respect, if Leigh stays with that position, I will have to dissent.’”

The hazing had its effect.

“We could see the blood drain from her face and her jaw tightened until it was Chief Justice Wathen’s turn to speak,” Lipez said. “Then he blew the whole bit by bursting into uncontrollable laughter.”

It was a reminder, even within a court’s inner sanctum, that there’s always a first day on the job. Saufley is renowned for her strategic use of humor, but this time was caught off guard.

“Leigh got it, of course, and joined in the laughter,” Lipez said. “But, in truth, I think it took her a while to forgive us.”

— Douglas Rooks