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Bar News - July 16, 2014


Gov. Hassan: Lawyers Play an Important Role in Democracy

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Editor’s Note: This article contains additional material from the Bar News interview with Gov. Hassan than what appeared in the print edition of the July 16 issue.


Governor Maggie Hassan
Some elected officials who are lawyers do not advertise their legal backgrounds, but Gov. Maggie Hassan has no qualms about saying that her training and experience as a lawyer has helped her in public office.

In a mid-June interview with Bar News, Hassan discussed the successes and challenges of the just-completed legislative session, as well as insights from her perspective as a lawyer and as a woman in a top leadership position. Having already appointed nine judges with five months still left in her first term, Hassan also talked about the experience of interviewing judicial candidates.

Hassan sidestepped a question about whether she will continue to make judicial appointments given the recent freeze she imposed on state government hiring due to a shortfall in state revenues. She said the Judicial Branch has asked her to exempt the appointments from the freeze and that she plans to meet with judicial leaders to determine the timing of two forthcoming superior court appointments and one circuit court appointment.

For most of the interview, however, Hassan spoke directly and at times philosophically about the role of lawyers in the enduring survival of our constitutional democracy. While the questions covered a wide range of topics, her answers seemed to weave together a theme about the importance of open discussion and compromise, and how lawyers play a positive role, both through advocacy and in facilitating negotiation.

“I think lawyers have been an essential part of the advocacy that has really defined who we are as a country and kept us true to what I call the American mission,” Hassan said. “As a country, we were founded on the concept that ordinary people could actually govern themselves. We take that concept for granted a lot now, but at the time that our country was founded, this was not an accepted concept, and people doubted whether it could be implemented well. And, what we’ve done, from generation to generation forward, is gotten better and better at it.”

“It is really about making sure that every single American counts, and when every single American counts and has a place at the decision-making table, you find that you unleash the talent and energy of every person. And that means you get stronger economically; it means that in each generation, you bring people in from the margins, and we get stronger as a result of that.

“Lawyers have often been the people who stand up for that principle even when staying true to that principle is really difficult. Lawyers often are the people who point that out, saying ‘Hey, you’re not counting this group, or these people aren’t at the table, and that’s not how it’s supposed to operate.’”

A discussion about what questions she has asked judicial candidates led to a conversation about lessons Hassan, who was admitted to the Bar in 1997, learned as an employment lawyer.

“What I learned is that people can have different perceptions around the same set of facts,” she said. “I learned over the course of my legal practice that you can have good people who truly disagree and also that there is a time to make your best argument and also that there is a time to decide that arguing can only get you so far, and litigating can only get you so far, and it’s time to sit down and figure out how to solve the problem and settle the matter.”

While one popular stereotype portrays lawyers as amoral hired guns, Hassan says, lawyers sometimes are in the best position to see both sides of an argument or a failing part of the process.

“I think many lawyers feel a great passion for that kind of advocacy. It sometimes makes them unpopular, because they are reminding us all of what we aren’t doing well, and so I think to go into the practice of law and especially to take that obligation to insist on the mission means you have to have a bit of stamina and you have to appreciate the big picture.”

That big picture can become very personal.

“It’s a big picture that was very important to me as I raised my son, Ben, who as you know has very severe disabilities… A generation or two earlier he probably would have been put in an institution and really would have had a quality of life that would have been difficult, to say the least, and he would have been quite marginalized.”

But the efforts of lawyers and families and educators who persisted in fighting for inclusion have made a better life possible for her son, Hassan said. At the same time, her position as a lawyer has enabled her to see the other side.

“I have represented school systems in special education cases before I was a parent. And then having the shoe on the other foot was interesting, but it was helpful having both of those experiences. I was blessed that [people] in the Exeter public school system were very responsive. They took their obligation to include Ben very seriously. But I also began to consider what it would be like if Ben’s diagnosis and needs weren’t as clear as they were.

“There are a lot of families, I think, who still struggle with a family member who isn’t a typical learner in some way or isn’t typical in terms of social interaction or emotional behavior in some way, and I think in some cases, it’s hard to figure out for the school and the family how to make that work, and we still have some progress to make on that front.”

Social needs, including added funding for mental health treatment and expansion of Medicaid, were major items on Hassan’s legislative agenda. The Medicaid expansion, developed through a compromise with the Republican-majority NH Senate, was a highlight of the legislative session for Hassan.

“One of the reasons that the Medicaid expansion bill we signed into law in March was so important was that, in addition to providing health care to 50,000 hard-working Granite Staters, it has a behavioral health and substance use disorder benefit, and that’s a first. It should allow us to begin to have the kind of infrastructure to begin to address substance use in a preventive and primary care framework, as opposed to just within the judicial system.”

She said the added benefits from the NH Health Protection Act (Medicaid expansion) will help what Hassan called “those very excellent pilot projects” the courts have initiated around alternative sentencing for offenders with substance abuse and mental health problems.

Adding $24 million to the budget to increase capacity, including the number of emergency mental health beds, was also an important accomplishment, Hassan said.

“I have been really heartened by the number of bipartisan achievements we’ve been able to come together to do,” she said. “I think as people see how stuck Washington is, we’re seeing a democracy that works in New Hampshire, even with divided government. That’s really critical, because I think people need to understand that their voices make a difference, that we are capable of self-governing and that we can move forward in New Hampshire despite some political differences, because we know at our base that we’re all Granite Staters and we’re all Americans and we can respect each other for that and find a way forward because of that.”

She also praised the success of the Foreclosure Relief Project, a collaboration between social service agencies working on housing issues and civil legal aid programs that was funded by a portion of the money New Hampshire received from a nationwide settlement with large banks over flawed foreclosure practices.

“The Foreclosure Relief Project has helped a lot of New Hampshire families with difficult financial and homeownership issues,” Hassan said. “It’s an example of what a partnership between the state government, the nonprofit sector, legal assistance and others can do, coming together to provide an integrated, targeted approach at a time when a lot of homeowners were rightly confused about how to best approach a difficult mortgage situation. It was a great use of the mortgage settlement money that came to New Hampshire.”

She also noted that the project is not just aiding homeowners, but also training many private practice lawyers who are donating their services and learning about a new area of the law that could help future homeowners fight unfair foreclosure practices.

“We have a wonderful bar in New Hampshire, which has a great tradition of encouraging pro bono work,” she said. “Here is a volunteer set of lawyers in private practice, some of whom might not have known much about this area of the law, and now, not only have they helped families with guidance from the experts involved in the project, but they now have a new skill set that strengthens their practice. I think that’s a great example of how giving back helps everyone.”

***

Gov. Hassan also discussed the topic of women in leadership roles in New Hampshire. “It’s been really important that women have increased their participation and numbers in all parts of American society and the American economy. Certainly there are more women involved now in the practice of law than when I started in 1985.” Hassan said more diverse leadership makes for better decision-making: “It’s important to have a lot of different perspectives. Research shows businesses with women on their boards do better.”

At speaking engagements, she frequently points that, currently the entire congressional delegation from New Hampshire, the governor and the NH Supreme Court chief justice, comprise an all-female leadership team for the state. But more progress is needed, especially in the private sector, she said. “When you look at the Fortune 500, 20 have women CEOs – only 20 female CEOs. That’s important progress, but we still have a ways to go.”

Hassan says she makes an effort to encourage more women to run for political office or to seek top leadership positions. “Until we all do it and get comfortable with the notion that it’s something we can balance and that we are good at, we’ll continue to have too few women in these critical roles.”

Bar News also asked Hassan about the potential for another attempt at repealing the death penalty in New Hampshire.

“You may know that I support life without parole for heinous crimes and, as a matter of faith and conscience, I oppose the death penalty.”

“I thought there was a really thoughtful debate and discussion within the legislature, and I know that the proponents of the repeal feel very passionate about it. I would expect that in the next legislature you might see a repeal bill again,” she said. Hassan also commented on the state courts’ e-Court project.

“I think they’ve made great progress. The court system has really worked to be innovative and is really a leader and looking at the functions they’ve done for hundreds of years and figuring out how to bring them into the 21st century. Kudos to the court system for really taking the challenge they were faced with when their budget got cut – or at least the funding wasn’t increased as the recession hit – and trying to figure out how to do better with less. They have done a really remarkable job of that. So, I’m really excited to see the rollout.

“I also expect and understand that as the rollout happens there may be changes or adjustments they need to make to it, as is true with any system. One of the things we all learn is that when you’re innovating, you often learn as you go, and that’s one of the things I expect we’ll see here.” Hassan was asked about the courts’ decision to create a two-track approach, creating a guided menu for pro se litigants and a streamlined system for lawyers and frequent court users.

“I knew generally that was the approach they were going to take. I think the courts have been concerned about and are trying to be responsive to the fact that we are seeing the number of pro se litigants increasing, and we have to have a court system that allows unrepresented participants to use the system well. So, when I think about the skill set and experience and knowledge that lawyers bring to the process, it makes sense to have different access points for both groups.

“That way, you’re not pulling lawyers through a set of procedures that they already understand and already know. And you’re making sure that the pro se entrants have the basic foundational knowledge they need to represent themselves as best they can in the court system while making sure that both represented litigants and unrepresented litigants have fair access and are on equal footing, too.”

Following the primaries in September, Bar News will report on all of the candidates for governor.

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