Hon. Vincent Lee McKusick

Remembering Chief Justice Vincent L. McKusick

Remembered For His Kindness And Brilliant Intellect

Hon. Vincent Lee McKusick
On December 3, 2014, the State of Maine lost one of the true greats in the history of Maine jurists.  Vincent L. McKusick died at the age of 93.

Because a new generation of lawyers did not have the opportunity to know the extraordinary man who led the Judicial Branch for more than 14 years, from 1977 to 1992, I add my voice to the many who have chronicled his extraordinary life and to share just a few of my personal experiences with "The Chief." 

 Vincent and his identical twin brother, Victor A. McKusick, were born in Parkman, Maine, on October 21, 1921, and went on to be co-valedictorians of their Guilford High School class of 28 students.  They were educated for the first eight grades in a one-room schoolhouse.  The former Chief Justice once said he, "did a full day of farm chores before and after going to school."  He never forgot his Parkman roots, nor was he afraid of hard work.

After receiving his Bachelor's degree from Bates College he served in the Army from 1943 to 1946 during World War II.  While in the service, he spent more than a year in Los Alamos, New Mexico, working on the world-changing Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.

Following the war, he continued his higher education on the G.I. Bill, earning a Masters of Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in electrical engineering in 1947.  His interest in patent law drew him to Harvard Law School where he earned his law degree.  His term as President of the Harvard Law Review broadened his interest in general practice law and laid the foundation for professional relationships that shaped his legal career.

After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1950, he clerked successively for two of the most renown jurists of the 20th century.  First for Chief Judge Learned Hand of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and then for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.

His long career in Maine law began in 1952 when he joined the law firm that is now Pierce Atwood, where he practiced for 25 years until he was appointed by Governor James B. Longley to be Maine's Chief Justice.   Approximately five years after his return to practice in Maine, he became a reporter for a committee appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court to draft the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure that took effect January 1, 1959.   Later, he co-authored Maine Civil Practice (Field, McKusick & Wroth) the classic reference guide for generations of Maine lawyers, which, in its updated form, is still very much in use.   

During his years in private practice he was regarded as one of the best lawyers in the nation.  In 1975, The New York Times reported that he was under consideration by President Ford to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. 

When he was nominated to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 1977, Governor Longley wrote, "Vincent L. McKusick is a man who has received national recognition as one of the nation's and Maine's outstanding attorneys."

Vincent L. McKusick became Chief Justice shortly after the Legislature's 1976 merger of the Supreme Judicial, Superior, and District Courts into a unified state court system.  The work that had been undertaken by his predecessors, Chief Justice Robert B. Williamson (who served as Chief from 1956 to 1970) and Chief Justice Armand A. Dufresne, Jr. (Maine's first Franco-American Chief Justice, who served as Chief from 1970 to 1977) had resulted in the creation of a centralized and streamlined administration for the courts, including the creation of a single Administrative Office of the Courts, to replace the multiple administrative entities that supported the individual courts.  Their efforts had been quite successful, and yet, at the time The Chief took office, the courts were still divided over the administrative court changes, so much so, that there was a bill in the Legislature in 1977 to create a separate administrative office for the District Courts.  The bill passed in the House but failed by one vote in the Senate.

It is almost unthinkable for us today, but the District Courts, created in the early 1960's, were originally funded in part from the fines levied by the District Court judges.  The consolidation and modernization of State Court administration eliminated both that questionable practice and an individual court's control over specific funding.  It created a system that was much more focused on the public's trust and confidence in judicial decision-making.  The hard work to achieve the statutory changes necessary to improve the system had been completed prior to The Chief's arrival, but the work of effectuating the changes was just beginning. 

Thus, Chief Justice McKusick's first year in office was a bit stormy, but his work was instrumental to the successful implementation of Chief Justice Dufresne's vision and the Legislature's plan to created a centralized state court system, notwithstanding what was termed by one legislator at The Chief's confirmation hearing, "a rebellion on the District Court level."  Ironically, in a speech delivered almost ten years earlier by The Chief, in 1968, in which he provided a thorough history of the early days of Maine's Supreme Judicial Court, he quoted Chief Justice Arthur Vanderbilt of New Jersey on the very point of reforming judicial administration: "[L]aw reform is no sport for the short-winded."   Little did The Chief know in 1968 that his own work in law reform a decade hence would help implement the much more efficient and productive system of justice that now exists in Maine.

During his tenure as Chief Justice, The Chief was also responsible for, and effective at, improving communications with the Legislative Branch.  He said at his confirmation hearing, "there has to be, and properly can be, it seems to me, representation, and call it lobbying if you like, representation by the Judiciary to the Legislature as to what they [judges] in their judgment think should be done in this area."He agreed to address the Legislature in an annual State of the Judiciary, and to provide an annual report to the Legislature.  The Annual Report and Annual State of the Judiciary Address to the Legislature are now an important part of the communications among the Branches. 

During his 14 years on the Supreme Judicial Court, The Chief thoroughly updated the process by which the Law Court did its work and placed increased emphasis on administrative efficiencies in the work of the Court.  The time for resolution of cases on appeal improved dramatically, and he created the foundation of the modern process for the drafting of Law Court opinions.  To this day, we use the Chief's process for circulating opinions and many of his reforms still guide the Court.  His opinions are read as some of the most effective judicial writings of his day.

The dramatic improvement in Law Court process, the effectuation of a modernized system of court administration, and the establishment of collegial communications among the three branches of government made the very best use of The Chief's dignified, brilliant, and ethically impeccable approach to the delivery of justice.  He was exactly the right judge at the right time. 

My own memories of The Chief, however, are much more related to his warm and endlessly polite personal style as an appellate jurist.  I began practicing law in 1980, and I had the honor and opportunity of appearing before the McKusick Court.  The Chief maintained the tradition of inviting new lawyers into the Court's inner sanctum immediately following their first arguments.  My own initiation was an inspiring event that I have never forgotten, brief though it must have been.  I remember feeling that The Chief Justice was truly personally delighted that I was interested in appellate practice.  I left that room feeling immensely proud to be a part of the legal profession. 

The Chief's ability to inspire that sense of the incredible importance of the legal profession in every new lawyer was legend, as was his humor and charm in bailing out lawyers who became stuck in a legal quagmire during argument.  I particularly remember one argument in which I had become a victim of the cross-fire between two warring justices, and I was rendered speechless as they debated each other.  The Chief finally leaned forward and said "Ms. Ingalls, you've come all the way from Augusta for this argument, perhaps we should give you a moment to get a word in edgewise?"  Fortunately, his colleagues laughed, and I did indeed get a few sentences out before the war resumed.

In 1992, at the end of two very full terms, Vincent L. McKusick left the bench to return to Pierce Atwood where he devoted himself to Alterative Dispute Resolution, and, as always, established a sterling reputation.He was appointed on three occasions as a Special Master by the United States Supreme Court and handled original jurisdiction cases between states.  He continued to work in the role Of Counsel for Pierce Atwood, and was in the office five days a week, until he was 90.

The Chief's career spanned 59 years in private practice, appellate court judging, and leadership in the legal profession.  He was a respected historian of the Maine Supreme Court, writing several noteworthy articles about the history of the Maine Courts.

He was physically active his entire life.  At his confirmation hearing in 1977 he told the Committee, "I have been blessed with a physique of a farm boy, which I am, and I am also blessed with a wife who makes sure that I take good care of myself. . . . She makes me jog and swim, ski in the winter time, and so."  Until his 90s, Chief Justice McKusick was seen frequently walking alongside, or behind, his wife (he claimed it was impossible to keep up with his wife, Nancy), on Shore Road in Cape Elizabeth, the town where they resided.

In addition to his judicial demeanor, the Chief Justice was also known for his quiet sense of humor.  At his confirmation hearing, Representative James Tierney, a young lawyer, and future Maine Attorney General said, "It is my deeply held conviction that first of all, Legislators who are lawyers frequently harbor a desire to be a Judge, and that all judges harbor a desire to be a Legislator."  Vincent McKusick responded, "Is this a confession?"

The Chief was an absolutely brilliant man.  He was also the kindest, and the most collegial and gentlemanly jurist I ever had the pleasure of appearing before.  He treated everyone with the absolute respect that is shown by the best of jurists.  He was a role model for every one of us.  He personified "judicial temperament."  We must not forget the lessons that he taught us all.