BANGOR – Most of the District Court lawyers and their clients who appeared before Judge Robert L. Browne were apt to be struck by his patience, aplomb and disarming wit.
Few were aware that the Bangor jurist presiding before them had actually penned many of the rules of engagement in the legal arena better known as “the people’s court.”
A lawyer, District Court judge, Superior Court justice and, later, one of the state’s first “active-retired” justices, Browne died Thursday at the Maine Veterans Home at the age of 81.
Residing at Sunbury Village in Bangor with his wife, Barbara Mills Browne, the judge had experienced some recent bouts with illness. But even in his advancing years, he displayed a characteristic tenacity that led many to believe he ultimately would return home.
“He was always a fighter and he would never give up,” recalled Mrs. Browne.
Several of his fellow judges and members of the Penobscot County Bar Association remembered the judge this weekend as a “gentleman’s gentleman” and a sincere humanitarian who possessed a unique ability to empathize with “the common man.”
A Farmington native, Browne served with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. He graduated from the University of Maine in 1948 and received his law degree from the Boston University School of Law in 1951.
Forming a partnership in Bangor with Ian MacInnes and Everett Gray, Browne went on to forge what was one of the city’s larger law firms in its day. His penchant for a game of cribbage at the courthouse first thing in the morning drew curious glances from more than one attorney.
Retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel E. Wathen recalled that Browne, who could balance easily the demands of his job against a quick game of cribbage, would bedevil other lawyers with his trademark wit.
“He would say, “I said we were one of the biggest law firms in Bangor, I didn’t say we were the busiest,'” Wathen said.
Browne served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives in the mid-1950s and was appointed by Republican Gov. John Reed to the Governor’s Executive Council in 1959. Two years later, Reed appointed Browne as a municipal court judge, and he spent the year scrutinizing and revamping the lower court with Judge Richard Chapman.
In 1962, the state’s municipal courts transitioned into the modern era with the Maine District Court System. Browne was one of the chief architects of the new system that moved much of the burdensome civil procedure out of the Superior Courts and into the District Courts.
A retired U.S. federal magistrate, former Maine District Court judge and Superior Court justice, Eugene Beaulieu of Old Town began practicing law at about the same time as Browne. Later, as an assistant district attorney for Penobscot County, Beaulieu would present criminal cases before the Bangor judge who, for many years, resided on Somerset Street with his wife and daughter, Melinda.
“Browne was involved in every aspect of the transition from the municipal court system to the modern District Court system,” Beaulieu said. “Everything from the drafting of the civil rules of the District Court to the very forms used to initiate every conceivable action. In fact, one could conclude that the District Court system is as successful as it is today because of the foundation he constructed.”
Browne went on to become the chief judge of the Maine District Court System in 1971 and was elevated to the position of Superior Court justice in 1974 by Democratic Gov. Kenneth Curtis. In 1985, Democratic Gov. Joseph E. Brennan appointed Browne as a so-called “active-retired” judge, a position Browne later would describe lightheartedly as “considerably more active than retired.”
“He did a tremendous amount of work as an active-retired judge,” recalled Bangor lawyer Paul Chaiken. “He was a very hardworking jurist.”
In the courtroom, Browne could be casual and reassuring with nervous members of the public and witnesses one moment and utterly uncompromising the next with young lawyers who dared to outmaneuver him. Wathen said Browne understood that many lawyers frequently would advance arguments that pushed the envelope to the point of the incredible.
“When that happened, some of us could see this impish look in his eye and we could tell he wasn’t swallowing it, even though he would be very polite,” Wathen said. “These lawyers would quickly find out that Bob was no push-over and he would become quite strict with respect to court procedure.”
Wathen said the few lawyers who tried to challenge Browne’s interpretation of the law usually knew the worst was coming their way after the judge responded to their assertion with an upbraiding that was usually prefaced by: “Well, I can understand that, but …”
“That’s when a lawyer knew he was he was going to be in for a very sad day,” Wathen said.
Always proud of his Maine heritage and fully aware of the negative stereotypes of Mainers perpetuated by some out-of-staters, Browne delighted in the opportunity to send his alma mater’s hockey team to the Hockey East tournament in 1994. Stymied by an eligibility challenge against a UMaine player, the university appealed its exclusion from the tournament to the Maine Superior Judicial Court and Browne presided over the case. With Northeastern University and Boston University as potential rivals, the Boston sports media homed in on the case with laserlike precision in search of the slightest hint of parochialism.
Browne ultimately ruled that Hockey East erroneously had barred the University of Maine team from the tournament, a decision that prompted a Boston Herald sportswriter to refer to him as “the clam-shucking judge” from Maine.
“He did find some humor in that,” said Chaiken, “and that was really illustrative of the kind of man he was. He was a judge who made his decisions, realizing that every decision wasn’t going to be perfect. But by and large, he called them right and was affirmed.”
A memorial service for Judge Robert L. Browne will be held 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Brookings-Smith Funeral Home, 133 Center St. in Bangor with the Rev. Robert Carlson officiating.