Ellen Gorman: conscience of a judge

An open letter to Justice Ellen Gorman of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court

Greetings Justice Gorman.

Not a lot is known publicly about your life in Maine politics, but what is known is quite impressive, at least on the surface.

In fact, I’d say the story of Ellen Gorman’s life is at first glance a rather inspiring one. Having graduated from Cornell Law school in 1982, you worked as a private attorney for only a few years until being appointed to your first government post in the state of Maine: a member of the Worker’s Compensation Board. It is pretty clear that someone entering such a post so early in her law career probably had politics, and likely the judiciary, as one of her life goals for some time. That’s how attorneys usually get to become judges, as you know: they get known by the local political establishment, and work hard to get elected (in some states) or appointed (in states like Maine).

It was probably one of the most thrilling moments of your life when then-Governor Jock McKernan, Jr. reached out and tapped you to become a judge in 1989, only 7 years after you’d graduated from Law School. I don’t know how well you knew McKernan, but you were both about the same age; he was an unusually young Governor at the time, and had obviously noticed young Ellen Gorman somehow or other. I suppose some might suggest some sort of croneyism there, but there’s no evidence of that that I’ve seen, and McKernan didn’t have a particularly bad reputation in that regard, and anyway you don’t get elevated to the bench that young without having been noticed by others in the political establishment, and this particular Republican obviously thought well of you in some fashion.

But Ellen Gorman was obviously not merely a Republican party hack; 11 years later, you got another call, letting you know that the Governor at that time, Angus Stanley King, Jr. (who is today Maine’s Junior Senator in Washington DC) reached out and tapped you for the Maine Superior Court, to hear appeals and oversee local courts. Angus King was and is an Independent, although he’s generally identified as moderately left of center. Which means you were likely no Republican firebrand or croney. Then, in 2007, in what was quite possibly the culminating moment in your stellar career, you were tapped by Maine Governor John Baldacci, a Democrat, elevating you to the exalted position of Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

I imagine that, whether you showed it publicly or not, you cried when you got the news, and you and your loved ones were proud beyond words of all you had achieved to make your way there, hearing countless cases, countless appeals, and successfully earning the respect of Republicans, Democracrats, and Independents through it all. Being sworn in as Justice was probably one of the happiest days of your life, which has doubtless been filled with exciting moments, lots of dreariness, and probably a frustration or three.

And then, in the last year, something dreadful happened. You got word that there was trouble in Carletta Bossano’s office in Hancock County. About which I now have a question for you: had you noticed, yet, that a smallish district under your purview, was a sleepy little community of mostly farmers, forestry people, and fishermen, with an awfully large number of of prosecutions for things like domestic violence and rape, making it look like one of the most dangerous places in the whole state?

Although the courts are (in)famous for keeping their inner workings out of the public light, I know Justices are usually assigned to watch over certain specific courts of appeal and certain specific Circuits/Districts underneath that. Now, maybe Bossano’s office wasn’t under your watch when you were on the Superior Court, but presumably it’s been under your areas of responsibility since 2007. Had you ever noticed this incredible mass of prosecutions of allegedly violent men coming out of Hancock County? Did a flag of curiosity ever go up with you? Did you ever call down to the local judges and prosecutors’ offices and ask what the heck was happening in down there? Or even wonder why the press hadn’t seemed to even notice the unusual number of proseuctions for violence in a rural community with less than 55,000 people in it?

Never mind the question of whether you knew who Mary Kellett in particular was. Maybe you wouldn’t necessarily know her name (there are a lot of prosecutors after all), but you’d certainly know who Bossano was, and you’d certainly have some idea what the caseload and appeals looked liked coming out of there, no?

Well maybe not. Maybe you weren’t on the Superior court that handled that area, and maybe the people on the Superior Court there never bothered to report upstairs that something weird was happening in Hancock County. Hell, maybe the statistically unusually high rate of prosecutions still wasn’t noticeable given how small the county was. Maybe. But I am curious about it.

Or did you maybe know, and just think, “wow, Carletta and her underlings are kicking ass and taking names over there?”

I can’t know, Justice Gorman, but I suspect this: I suspect the day you got the news that the Board of Overseers of the Bar was so appalled by the behavior of one of Carletta Bossano’s underlings, they referred her case straight to the state Supreme Court. And this storm has now landed in your lap, as in the first time in history someone in your position has to seriously consider removing a Prosecutor. Hell, it’s never happened like that before in Maine; I’m pretty sure your stomach dropped to your toes just at the thought of the law books and Maine Constitutional study you’d have to do on something like this. It wouldn’t surprise me if Paul LePage has even quietly contacted you about it, if you didn’t contact him first; I mean, should impeachment be on the table here, and if so, should it be on the table not just for Kellett, but for her (surprisingly quiet these days) boss, Carletta Bossano? Should the judges who heard these cases be asked questions, for that matter? Should they have noticed something? I imagine you at least made those phone calls too.

And why else would your stomach be fluttery? Not only are you going to be on the bench during a historic hearing, doing something no Justice has ever done before, but at this point you must realize: everyone who knows anything about law in Maine knows what this really says: a rogue prosecutor threw an innocent man in the slammer by cheating so badly that no one in the local political establishment, not the judges, not the bar, not her fellow prosecutors, could cover for her; none of this could even charitably be called a misstep or an oversight or a bungle. And the question, indeed, must now be asked: for one Vladek Filler, how many other men went to prison there in Maine and are rotting in the jails now, or are using up the Maine Parole Department’s resources, who never did anything to justify the harshness they were treated with, or never did a damn thing wrong at all?

How many credible victims now look like liars because of Mary Kellett, for that matter?

And the question you really don’t want to consider, but really must: was Mary Kellett really all that unusual, except that she was dumb enough to get caught? How many others in Carletta Bossano’s office were just as bad, and just not stupid enough to get caught withholding, tampering with, or destroying evidence just to win a case? How many others in other offices, for that matter?

Most people think your job on the Supreme Court is just to hear appeals, but you and I know that’s not true: it’s also your job to watch over and set behavior and guidelines for all officers of the court underneath you and the state.

So, Justice Gorman, let me put this to you, and to others in Maine: as someone who has rightfully been proud to say she was never a partisan hack, who won the respect and trust of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike to rise to one of the highest positions of authority in that great state, how much of this happened under your watch–and how much might still be happening under your watch even now?

Here is what I would do in your shoes Justice Gorman: I wouldn’t allow this prosecutor, Mary Kellett, to get away with copping to a plea and walking away quietly. I’d make this woman who represented your court’s prosecutorial officers for years now answer for every allegation against her, in public, no matter how long it takes to get the answers out of her and out of her boss and yes, even the judges who presided over cases she was involved in.

But in fact, I’d do more than that. You’ve had something of a superstar career and are respected around the state, so you have no excuses. You face one of the most pivotal moments of your life: will you sweep this under the rug and get it off your docket as quickly as possible? That’s certainly one choice you have, although I hope you don’t take it. Or will you go further, and will you really make sure Mary Kellett fully answers not just for Vladek Filler, but for what she may have done to countless other men? That would be better But if you really wanted to earn the respect of the world, and restore some semblance of trust and dignity back to the justice system, or what some are increasingly calling our “truly criminal justice system,” I’d take all that political capital I’d gained over the last quarter century in Maine Politics, and use everything within your power to fully investigate Carletta Bossano’s office, the judges in that entire District Court, give a green light to fast-tracking any and all appeals that involved men prosecuted by Carletta Bossano’s office in the last 10 years, and urge your fellow Justices to do the same to clean house big time throughout the areas of the courts they look at.

Show the people, show the world, that false accusers hurt real victims, victimize innocent people, waste valuable taxpayer money and resources, and violate the fundamental principles of jurisprudence that this nation, and the great state of Maine, were founded upon. Throw the doors wide open, and scream to the world: “from this day forward, no more. Not on my watch. Not while I draw breath and not while I’m on this bench, will I allow this office and this system I have worked in my whole life be so sullied.”

Justice Gorman, it’s not just Mary Kellett who’s in the hot seat on Monday July 15th. And it’s not just you. It’s the entire system you’re an important part of.

Will you do all in your power to make sure justice is really served, not just to Vladek Filler, but to all of the state of Maine? Will you actually show the world that the term “justice system” can potentially mean something positive again? That your own title of “Justice” isn’t a sad joke, a relic of a set of ideals that were long ago rendered obsolete by the people who work under you?

Will you try to make that difference? Or will you dispatch of this whole mess as quickly and quietly as you can, and meet your friends on the golf course while you contemplate your next move: the Federal bench perhaps, or maybe just coast for a decade or two longer to an eventual retirement, resting on the laurels of the titles you achieved, rather than the actual accomplishments, the actual difference that you made?

It’s not just Mary Kellett that needs to go, Justice Gorman. You know it, I know it, everyone watching knows it. So which side will you be on; The one that’s comfortable and easy, or the one that’s right?

Don’t let her cop a plea, Justice Gorman, and don’t let her boss slither away from this. You know you can do better. We know you can do better.

I pray that you do better.

*Update*: On July 15, 2013, Ellen Gorman demonstrated to the world that her title of “Justice” is indeed, a sad pathetic joke, and that she will likely retire resting on the laurels of her titles, rather than her actual accomplishments. And has proven there is no justice in Maine’s justice system, and that it is aptly called a “criminal” system. You are a disgrace to the bench, Ellen Gorman.

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