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Tierney seated in Colvin Hall. Photo by Sofia Langlois

Former Attorney General James Tierney visits UMaine to engage with students

James Tierney is a prominent University of Maine Law School alumni who served as the Maine Attorney General (AG) from 1980 to 1990. Since then, Tierney has directed the National State General Attorney’s Program at Columbia Law and remained in said position for 16 years. Tierney is currently a lecturer on law at Harvard.  

Tierney has kept in touch with Orono throughout his career and visits regularly, as his family members reside in Maine. Tierney has held a decade-long position as a chief lawyer for the state. The AG is responsible for the case study of all homicide prosecutions and oversees 110 lawyers state-wide. 

“Your job as attorney general is to tell the truth because people inside the state government will disagree… It’s the attorney general’s job to call it straight,” said Tierney.

Tierney considers one of the greatest accomplishments of his career to be the terrific staff he assembled as the AG, which had members from both in and out of state. He noted that it is problematic to hire based on friendship, politics or personal preferences. 

He was also heavily involved in the tobacco industry lawsuit 25 years ago. Under the Master Settlement Agreement, revenue from tobacco industries is allocated to related healthcare costs. Through Tierney’s avid participation in its eventual regulation, those with illnesses resulting directly from smoking were able to access medical treatment, thus saving countless lives. Furthermore, Tierney monitored the election in Cameroon amidst the civil war in Africa. 

“While I was there, I was able to craft together a report that was honest and true and called out the corruption that I saw. But also, it helped keep the country from spinning into violence at the time,” Tierney said. 

Like many government positions, the role of Attorney General comes with sleepless nights and notable struggles. Tierney described the need for assessing one’s values as a lawyer to discern right from wrong in the pursuit of effective truth-telling. Since he has left office, Tierney has committed significant time to counseling others involved in similar practices. 

For example, throughout the months following the George Floyd homicide, he served as a confidant to the AG of Minnesota, who had to address upwards of 25,000 heartbroken members of the community outside of his office. 

Tierney also shared what he considers a key component for effectively imparting knowledge to students. Knowing material is crucial, but communicating it in a transparent and comprehensible manner is also extremely important.  

He also emphasizes connecting to a student’s roots before guiding them through a school of thought.

“You really need to care about students. More important than your research, or your books or your own personal theory about one issue or another, is you have to accept students where they are,” said Tierney.

In terms of exercising judgment, Tierney used a hypothetical situation to exemplify the questions that a lawyer should pose. In this particular case, you hear a student was run over by a car on campus. Tierney asks whether or not it should be considered a crime. 

The answer relies on further context regarding concrete facts, such as whether the student was on the crosswalk and what time of day it occurred. Also, whether or not the driver was texting or speeding or had suffered a heart attack are important factors in the case. Leaving out just one of these details can harm the final ruling. Tierney connected this potential situation to an overarching piece of advice for students looking to pursue a career in legal studies.

“Be curious. The life of law is experience. It’s not what’s written down in the books… All these other facts go into the determination, and those aren’t legal facts. They’re human facts. They’re the human experience. The lawyer’s job is to extrapolate the real human experience and put it into a sense of justice,” Tierney said.

Similarly, regarding a series of car accidents on Interstate 95 wherein individuals enter the highway driving the wrong direction, there are a multitude of aspects worth considering. Perhaps the answer could lie within the Department of Transportation for them to see if particular areas need more signage. It could be the product of widespread medical conditions, such as dementia. Another solution may be to address the problem in driver education courses to ensure that preparedness is exercised. 

Tierney voiced his thoughts on the upcoming 2024 Presidential Election. He identified his political affiliation as a Democrat who favored Joe Biden serving a second term. 

“I think that President Trump is an assault on democracy itself, so separate from any given issue. You have his former attorney general Bill Barr saying he is unfit for any public office, a sounding statement,” Tierney said. 

He also drew attention to what he views as a considerable weakness of Maine, which is its dangerous residual culture of not accepting newcomers with open arms. According to Tierney, one-third of those in the US are people of color. That margin only takes up approximately 2% of the population in Maine. Residents and leaders of this state must do their part to make minority groups feel more comfortable in this region.

“Maine’s greatest challenge is its demographics. I have been writing on this for over 20 years. We don’t have anywhere near enough immigrants, we are in desperate need of more immigrants coming to Maine. The statistics are overwhelming,” Tierney said. 

Tierney expressed a strong connection to UMaine that is still maintained despite his extensive career path and numerous accomplishments post-graduation.

“I met my first wife here, I met my dearest friends here. I was very involved. I was chairman of the coalition to end the war here. I would bring people together… We formed an organization called Student Action Corps. We did a lot of social service programs, we did tutoring on reservations, we worked in mental hospitals,” Tierney said. 

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