U.S. Supreme Court U.S. Supreme Court. Credit: Diego M. Radzinschi/ NLJ

For the second time this year, the U.S. Supreme Court has abruptly discharged a lawyer in private practice who has been serving as a special master, and appointed a senior federal judge to step in and preside over a water dispute between states.

The court on Thursday issued an order stating that Portland, Maine, lawyer Ralph Lancaster Jr., who has been special master in Florida v. Georgia since November 2014, is “hereby discharged with the thanks of the court.”

Lancaster will be replaced by Paul Kelly Jr., a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The 78-year-old judge, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, took senior status last December. The court did not offer any reasons for the decision.

Lancaster, 88, has served the court as a special master for a record four times. He is of counsel at the Pierce Atwood firm, and for years, Lancaster and his late law firm partner Vincent McKusick virtually cornered the market for special masters. Lancaster did not respond to requests for comment.

The high court recruits special masters to gather facts and make recommendations in so-called original jurisdiction cases, mostly disputes over boundaries or water rights between states. The cases come to the court as matters of first, not last, resort, so there is no trial record for the justices to examine. Special masters provide that record through hearings and submissions from the parties in a process that often lasts years, if not decades.

In April the court dismissed another private practitioner who was special master in Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado, also a water dispute. A. Gregory Grimsal, a member at the firm Gordon, Arata, Montgomery, Barnett, McCollam, Duplantis & Eagan, was replaced by Senior Judge Michael Melloy of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

In both instances, the Supreme Court had recently issued opinions that sent the disputes back to the special masters for further findings. In Florida v. Georgia, the court issued a ruling on June 27 that was viewed as a win for Florida, but remanded the case for further findings on an equitable remedy to end the dispute.

No matter what the reason for Thursday’s decision, it will reduce future litigation costs for both Florida and Georgia as the fact-finding continues. Traditionally, the states involved in original jurisdiction cases share paying the legal fees of lawyers who act as special masters, though the high court foots the bill for some administrative and clerical costs.

According to the court’s docket in Florida v. Georgia, the parties jointly paid Lancaster a total of $481,258 between November 2014 and April 2017, with an additional payment likely. By contrast, judges who become special masters are on the government payroll, relieving the states of having to pay special masters’ fees.


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