Thomas E. Delahanty II, former Maine judge and U.S. attorney, dies at 75

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Matt Byrne, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·5 min read
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Apr. 14—Thomas E. Delahanty II, a legal titan in Maine whose career as a prosecutor and judge spanned more than four decades, died Monday.

He was 75.

James Howeniec, Lewiston's former mayor and a defense attorney in Lewiston, said Delahanty died after battling pancreatic cancer.

"He was a titan in our community (Lewiston)," said Howaniec, who has been practicing law for 35 years. "He was an incredibly intelligent man, who was gregarious and funny, who loved life, who loved his family and who loved law."

As a trial judge, Delahanty could come across as being gruff and demanding, but underneath was a fair-minded judge who could be compassionate, Howaniec said.

Delahanty served as the U.S. Attorney for Maine from 2010 to 2017. A lifelong Democrat, Delahanty was appointed by then-President Obama. It was Delahanty's second stint. He also had been appointed to the post 30 years earlier by President Carter.

Gov. Janet Mills mourned Delahanty's passing and cited his work on behalf of Mainers to stem the opioid epidemic.

"I respected and admired his intellect, his judgment, and his commitment to protecting and delivering justice under the law for the people of Maine," Mills said in a statement. "I will miss him but know that Maine is better off as a result of his service. My thoughts and deepest sympathies go out to his wife, Ruth, and his two sons."

Leigh I. Saufley, the former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court who is now dean of the University of Maine School of Law, Delahanty's alma mater, said Delahanty's work-ethic and legal acumen on the bench set the standard, and called his passing "the end of an era."

"He was one of the best criminal trial jurists I ever had the pleasure to work with," Saufley said in a statement. "In that role, and during his term as Chief Justice of the Superior Court, he trained and mentored me and so many of our colleagues."

"Speaking personally, I will always be grateful for Tom's support through so many challenges in the Maine courts," Saufley said. "His kindness, warmth, and humor, not always seen on the bench, were such a help to me and to our colleagues as we worked to provide access to justice in very difficult times. When I found myself picking up the phone in the midst of the latest logistical challenges, Tom's response was always: what can I do to help. The world has lost an extraordinary jurist, and we have lost such a good friend."

Roland Cole, an active-retired justice of the Superior Court who succeeded Delahanty as chief justice, said Delahanty traveled the state to try cases in every county, and was quick to offer whatever assistance he could to less experienced judges making the transition to superior court.

"He would give you whatever resources he could," said Cole. "He was always willing to help out or take over, and he took on the toughest cases himself. He didn't ask anyone to do anything that he wasn't more than willing to do himself."

Justice Nancy Mills, another active-retired judge and longtime colleague, remembered Delahanty for his commitment to helping new judges, and to the institution for which they all worked.

As a justice, Delahanty worked hard to show new justices the way, she said. When other judges might offer a few pages of notes about how to instruct a grand jury, for instance, Delahanty's missive stretched to 25 pages, she said.

When the 17 justices of the superior court would meet for official photographs, Mills said Delahanty knew by heart the order of each justice's confirmation. Delahanty thought of the group as a family, she said.

"The most firm recollection I have of him from all the years I knew him was his extraordinary respect for the courts and the law and his absolute devotion to the superior court," Mills said. "He was very respectful of procedure and he thought things should be done in a formal, by the book way, which is how I feel as well, so we were kindred spirits in that regard. Everything that happens in a courtroom is very important, and we should never forget that."

Verne Paradie, an Auburn attorney who knew Delahanty professionally, said he will remember Delahanty's sharp legal mind and his no-nonsense demeanor at trial.

"It was not uncommon for him to corner me and say, 'I have this very difficult defendant who I need an attorney for, and I'd like to appoint you,'" said Paradie on Wednesday. "When he meant it, he meant it."

"He was a great trial judge. If you asked any lawyer they'd be happy to tell you. He knew his stuff," Paradie said. "He was very strong in in evidentiary rulings."

Delahanty grew up in Lewiston, earned his undergraduate degree in Vermont and earned his law degree at the University of Maine School of Law in 1970. Following a short stint as a defense attorney, Delahanty joined the prosecutor's office in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties in 1975.

His first stint as U.S. Attorney for Maine was between 1980 and 1981, when Carter appointed Delahanty to replace George Mitchell, whom Carter had appointed to the federal bench.

When Carter lost reelection to Ronald Reagan, Delahanty returned briefly to defense work for two years until he was appointed a justice of the Maine Superior Court, a position he held for 18 years, including five from 1990 to 1995 as chief justice, until he was named U.S. Attorney for the district of Maine by Obama in 2010.

Delahanty was among several U.S. attorneys who were removed from their posts in 2017 by the administration of Donald J. Trump. Delahanty returned to the state bench as an active-retired judge.