October 04, 2022

Former U.S. attorney Peter Mills dies at 90 Maverick lawmaker took on ‘white only’ club

FARMINGTON – Former U.S. Attorney Peter Mills died Saturday at his Farmington home.

Mills, 90, had been in ill health for several months.

Colleagues at a testimonial described him in 1977 as a man of “single-minded stubbornness.”

“If a law was a law, it was a black and white thing for Peter Mills. There were no gray areas,” wrote John S. Day in his “Maine Comment” column published May 7, 1977.

Born in Farmington on Aug. 26, 1911, Mills graduated from Farmington High School in 1929, Hebron Academy in 1930 and Colby College in 1934. He earned a law degree from Boston University in 1937.

Mills was elected to five terms in the Maine Legislature, including three in the House (1938, 1940 and 1946), and served as House majority floor leader in 1947-48. He was elected to the state Senate in 1966 and 1968.

He twice served as U.S. attorney for Maine, leading that office for 16 years in all.

His first stint came during the Eisenhower administration from 1953 to 1961. He subsequently returned to the federal post under Presidents Nixon and Ford from 1969 to 1977, when he retired a second time to his law practice in Farmington.

Day, a former Bangor Daily News reporter who covered Maine politics for many years, attended Mills’ retirement dinner in 1977. In his May 7 column, Day observed that “as a prosecutor, Mills never pulled his punches.”

In the column, Day summed up Mills’ accomplishments as Maine’s U.S. attorney.

“He filed legal action against the state lottery when he discovered the agency, along with other lottery commissions throughout the country, was violating federal mail statutes.

“He convicted the terrorist bombers who tried to blow up Central Maine Power Co. last summer (1976).

“He sued to halt Maine’s traditional log drives because they violated an obscure, nearly century-old federal law guaranteeing free navigation on major rivers.

“He sued many of the state’s largest trucking companies for antitrust violations; prosecuted scores of white-collar professional persons for tax fraud; and, for the first time in Maine history, moved to criminally prosecute an attorney who attempted to extort unfair legal fees from low-income families.”

Mills left the Legislature in 1941 to go on active duty in the Navy. He was a gunnery officer aboard a carrier escort, serving on a ship that was hit by a kamikaze attack and helped win the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

After the war he served in the reserves, became commander of the reserve unit in South Portland and finally retired as a captain.

Known as a maverick Republican, Mills once said that he wanted to be remembered not for his work as a prosecutor, but for a bill sponsored in 1969 when he was member of the Maine Senate.

In 1969 he sponsored and won passage of legislation, which ordered the state liquor commission not to renew liquor licenses for any private club that discriminated on the basis of race or religion.

The Elks lodges, which had a “white only” provision in their charter, appealed the measure to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and lost the cast in 1972. On April 16, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Maine’s anti-discrimination statute. Six months later, the national Elks organization voted to drop the “whites only” rule.

Mills was married to Katherine Coffin of Ashland, in 1941; they divorced in 1975. The couple had five children: state Sen. Peter Mills III, David Mills of Farmington; former Androscoggin area District Attorney Janet Mills, Farmington attorney Paul Mills and Maine Public Health Director Dr. Dora Anne Mills.

Funeral services will be held at the Old South Congregational Church in Farmington at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29.

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