Courthouse statue has Kennebec County officials searching for an answer

Melville Fuller, a Maine native, rose to become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, but an 1896 decision leaves some wondering whether honoring him on courthouse grounds is proper.

by | December 6, 2020

Kennebec County residents and officials are deciding how to handle the statue of Melville Fuller, the Augusta-born former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, that was placed outside the county courthouse seven years ago.

Fuller, a Bowdoin College graduate, was chief justice from 1888 until his death in 1910 after being nominated by President Grover Cleveland.

At issue is Fuller’s support for the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which created the “separate but equal” doctrine and led to segregationist laws before being essentially overturned by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Fuller signed on to the majority 7-1 decision but did not write the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson. 

Amid a national racial reckoning following months of social unrest, a Dec. 1 virtual meeting on the statue was held at the request of Andrew Mead, the acting Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

A statute of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Meville Fuller has sat outside the Kennebec County Courthouse since 2013. Justices of the Maine Supreme Court would like to have the statue removed due to Melville’s role in the landmark 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Photo courtesy of WABI.

About 33 participants joined the meeting, with a wide variety of opinions. Most expressed concern for preserving history but recognized the statue — the only such memorial outside the courthouse property — may not be fully appropriate.

“The courthouse has to be a place where absolutely everyone knows that they are going to receive justice,” said Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney. “That it’s not going to be justice based on their race, based on their income — any other factor. If there’s even a thought that something might impede someone feeling like they’re going to receive justice, then that has to be removed.”

Maloney supported Augusta Councilwoman Linda Conti’s idea that the statue be moved to the Kennebec Historical Society about a half-mile from the courthouse.

But simply moving the statue didn’t go far enough for Adam Turner, who lives in Fuller’s childhood home. Turner said it isn’t just Fuller’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that has him opposing the statue, but a well-documented quote in which Fuller condemned President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as depriving “loyal men of their property” in reference to slaves.

Kennebec County attorney Leah Baldacci

“I don’t think we should move it,” Turner said. “I think we should destroy it, melt it down and make plumbing fittings from it.”

Leah Baldacci, an attorney and Kennebec County resident, disagreed. She said Fuller was recognized for his “tactfulness” and “teamwork” while serving on the nation’s highest court.

Baldacci questioned why the debate over the statue emerged just seven years after it was erected, charging the Maine Bar Association of heavily promoting the “Marxist” critical race theory that “divides and conquers” on the basis of race. 

“The statue is not a reminder of segregation and racism unless you are looking for racism,” said Baldacci, who wants the statue to remain on State Street in Augusta. “The statue, instead, to me, is a reminder that the court and even the Supreme Court of the United States is not God. The decisions that (the court) makes will be scrutinized well into the future.

“History doesn’t care about your feelings,” Baldacci said. 

The statue was donated in 2013 by a Fuller family member, Robert Fuller. At that time, there was some hesitancy to accept the gift.

“The state’s judicial branch declined the Fuller family’s offer to place the statue on court property. Kennebec County accepted that offer,” said Leigh Saufley, the state Supreme Judicial Court Chief at the time. 

Stephen Smith, an Augusta lawyer representing the Fuller family, said in Tuesday’s virtual meeting that history “is composed of a tapestry of heroes and villains, but mostly, people in between striving to their level best.”

Kirk Mohney, the director of Maine’s Historic Preservation Commission, said he isn’t aware of other statues or memorials in Maine that honor Fuller. Fuller and Nathan Clifford are the only two Maine residents to serve on the nation’s highest court.  

Andrew Mead, acting Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court

Mead, who requested the meeting, concedes that the state’s judicial branch does not own the statue or the courthouse grounds, but believes the statue should not be what “members of the public see as they approach the courthouse.”

Mead said all of Maine’s judicial officers were invited to share their perspective, and an “overwhelming consensus” said the location of the statue is “not consistent with our values” because of the “profound” association between Fuller and the Plessy decision.

That sentiment was echoed at the meeting by Kennebec County Judge Libby Mitchell.

“I must tell you as the judge … who looks out the window at the statue often, I have been very concerned about it,” Mitchell said. “But I have also been extraordinarily reluctant to weigh into this debate, only because sometimes it can be so polarizing. But in this case it’s very important.

“We want to keep this (statue), but perhaps it is better to put it in a museum with a whole monopoly of people who have made distinguished marks on the system of justice. It’s just not the right symbol. He does not need to be the entry point to the justice system that we have in our state.”

After leaving Bowdoin, Fuller practiced law in Augusta and was elected president of the Augusta Common Council and appointed city solicitor. He moved to Chicago in 1856 and was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1863. Prior to his nomination to the Supreme Court, Fuller was offered but declined opportunities to serve as the chairman of the Civil Service Commission and solicitor general of the United States. He died in 1910 in the coastal town of Sorrento, Maine.

Fuller also issued the decision to render the income tax law unconstitutional in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., overturned by the 16th amendment. In United States v. E.C. Knight Co., his majority decision made it harder for the government to prosecute anti-trust cases. And in Gonzales v. Williams, Fuller sided with the majority that said Puerto Ricans were not aliens and could not be denied entry into the country, but stopped short of granting them citizenship.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Melville Fuller

Fuller administered the oath of office to five presidents. A 1999 study found while on the Supreme Court, he voted in favor of civil rights for Blacks in five of the 33 cases before him and in favor of civil rights for Asian-Americans in seven of the 29 cases before him. Both percentages were below the average for the Supreme Court as a whole.

“I think it’s important to note that we shouldn’t be judging people participating in history by our standards but rather by theirs,” said Smith, who represents the Fuller family. “I think it makes our history much less rich. History is a tension of all of these currents merging against each other and if you don’t have the context of a Justice Fuller or others who might be seen from today’s perspective as less than wise, then you can’t put the victories of progress in any sort of context.”

Even as debates over Confederate monuments and the names of military bases have heated up, Maine has a short list of similar controversies.

Earlier this year, the Bangor City Council voted to remove a monument honoring a Portuguese explorer who enslaved and oppressed Native Americans in New England. The monument, erected in 1999, was moved to the Bangor Historical Society following a request by the Penobscot Nation. 

In 2017, Bowdoin College moved a plaque in a prominent location of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, to its Special Collections and Archives. Bowdoin’s administration cited the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier that summer as reasoning for the decision.

Also in 2017, the Bangor City Council recognized the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. Gov. Janet Mills signed legislation in 2019 changing the name of the holiday statewide. The state banned its public schools and colleges from using Native American mascots in 2019 as well. 

Kennebec County officials at the virtual meeting gave no timeline for a decision on the Fuller statue, though ideas of moving it to a museum or the Historical Society seemed to gain support. Written comments, accepted until Dec. 10, can be sent to County Administrator Bob Devlin at 125 State St., Augusta 04330.

In an interview with The Maine Monitor, Devlin said the statue’s fate would likely not be decided until 2021. He emphasized moving the statue, if that’s what the commissioners decide, is “no subtle task” and involves “a big crane,” and would “take planning.” Moving the large monument would also be expensive — if a suitable alternative site is agreed upon. 

Isreal Mosley said at the risk of coming off as the “angry Black person in this meeting,” segregation and racial terror were the outcomes of Fuller’s Plessy decision.

“Part of Melville Fuller’s legacy is also the tradition of coddling and appeasing white supremacists and Confederates who would have rather seen people die and bleed in this country than to see a Black man free,” Mosley said.

Susan Farnsworth said it’s most important to her that the courthouse is free from any perception that it endorses the concept of separate but equal and wants this process to be used for education — but does not believe in “tearing things down.”

“If you do not remember history, you are condemned to repeat it,” said Kent London, a longtime Maine resident. “If we forget what segregation and racism was, then we will repeat it.”

Jordan Wolman

Jordan Wolman

Jordan Wolman is an intern for The Maine Monitor. Jordan is a senior journalism major at Lehigh University and is graduating in December 2020. He serves as editor in chief of The Brown and White, Lehigh's student paper, and is reporting on the lack of internet access in rural Pennsylvania through a Pulitzer Center grant. Jordan also has experience covering the Pennsylvania Capitol for outlets like Spotlight PA and The Morning Call. His work has been recognized by organizations like the New Jersey Press Association and the College Media Association.


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