Gov. Paul LePage is publicly questioning the character of Maine Supreme Court Justice Joseph Jabar after he says Jabar went back on a personal promise to retire before the end of his seven-year term, if LePage agreed to reappoint him.
LePage released a letter he sent last week to Jabar and the entire Supreme Court, questioning the judge’s honesty and character. He says he met with Jabar two years ago, and he told Jabar he was not planning to reappoint him to the court. He says Jabar asked he be reappointed so he could maximize his retirement and promised to resign early after he completed 20 years as a judge.
LePage says he was reluctant to even meet with Jabar.
“I was advised to not to talk to him, not to meet with him, just to do the job, just not reappoint him because there was some reason to believe he would not live up to his word,” he says.
But LePage says he did agree to reappoint Jabar and was floored when Jabar chose not to step down from the court.
“His word is no good. He is a sitting justice and he will continue to sit there unless he leaves on his own because I’ve appointed him. But I think it’s important Maine people know what they have for a Supreme Court justice,” he says.
LePage’s letter surprised lawmakers, including Portland Democrat Matt Moonen, who serves as House co-chair of the Judiciary Committee that unanimously recommended Jabar’s confirmation last year. He says the panel was never told of any deal between the governor and Jabar.
“When this nomination came before our committee we were under the impression, as we are with all nominations, that it was for a seven-year term and that the nominee intended to serve the seven-year term. So, I never heard anything about it during the process, never heard anything until this moment,” he says.
Moonen says the governor’s criticism of a sitting justice is a blow aimed at the credibility of the courts in the eyes of the public.
House Speaker Sarah Gideon, a Democrat from Freeport, called the release of the letter deeply troubling. In a statement, she said that the judiciary must remain “independent and immune” from pressure such as the governor’s letter.
The chair of the governor’s Judicial Selection Committee, attorney Josh Tardy, says he was aware of the meeting between the governor and Jabar, but that he was not present at it.
“His record on judicial appointments speaks for itself and I think obviously this is a matter that he thinks significant enough so the press is now involved,” he says.
University of Maine School of Law professor Dimtry Bam says while it may be unusual for a governor and a judicial nominee to have some sort of retirement agreement, it is not enforceable, as the state constitution provides for a seven-year term. He says he is less bothered by the agreement than he is by the letter sent to Jabar and to all of the sitting justices of the state Supreme Court.
“You might have litigants who are at the court who might say, ‘Well I am not sure, I’m not sure about this judge’s honesty or integrity.’ And to a large extent, the judiciary depends on that kind of public confidence,” he says.
Bam says the letter could be seen as undercutting public faith in the courts. Through a spokeswoman, both Jabar and Chief Justice Leigh Saufley declined comment on the governor’s letter.