By Kathie Ragsdale
In 1982, Lauren Noether was a new law school grad who was painting houses while awaiting an opportunity to practice law.
She was the first practitioner to be profiled in a publication of the New Hampshire Bar, and both have changed dramatically in the intervening 42 years.
Noether went on to become one of the first female county attorneys in the state, as well as a senior assistant attorney general. The Bar has become more inclusive and more accessible as it begins its 150th year, with a variety of programs and events planned.
Noether was born in New York, to European immigrants who had fled the Holocaust. Her formative years were spent in the Republic of China, Taiwan, where her father had pursued a business opportunity with his brother.
“There are not many people who look like you,” Noether remembers of her life in the Asian nation. “You’re exposed to really different things, and you don’t realize they’re different. You just come to expect it as part of the flavor of the world, some of the flavors of the world.”
Her parents encouraged that taste for open-mindedness by taking the family on trips throughout the world and provided the young Noether with early lessons in both courage and tolerance.
Her father had fled Nazi Germany for the Netherlands, where he met Noether’s mother, who left food for him while he was in hiding and buried his German passport in her yard.
“She was really quite daring and went out after curfew and listened to Radio Free Europe in somebody’s cellar,” Noether says.
Her parents’ stories from that time left Noether with the understanding that “freedom isn’t free, and you don’t take it for granted, and justice is a really important aspiration,” she says.
She describes her father as a brilliant man who was given to bouts of deep depression, alternating with “hyperactivity that you wouldn’t believe.” Only years later did she come to understand he had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, leaving her with an abiding interest in helping those with mental illness.
The family eventually settled in Maine, where Noether enrolled at the University of Maine Orono and had an experience that triggered her interest in law. She was co-captain of the women’s track team at a time when the head of the athletic department refused to allow women to use the Nautilus equipment in the weight room that the men used, relegating them to the inferior equipment in the women’s gym.
“I just couldn’t wrap my mind around why the university wouldn’t give their best to the best of their athletes,” she says.
Title IX had been enacted but not yet rolled out in Maine, so Noether protested to the school’s Title IX coordinator, started a letter campaign to the university’s trustees, and even wrote to tennis legend, Billie Jean King.
The university eventually made the equipment available to women – after Noether had graduated. But a prospective litigator had been born.
After graduation, Noether worked for Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana for four months, and briefly published a weekly community newspaper in Portland, Maine before going to law school.
While at Franklin Pierce Law Center, she spent summers painting houses and shingling roofs, and ran a mowing business on the side. When she graduated, Noether says, “I fell back on my house painting skills” until landing a job at a law firm.
She worked at the Rinden Law Office in Concord for nine months, then did a stint at the Somersworth firm of Charles Burkham. In 1985, she joined the Laconia Police Department as its prosecuting attorney and stayed in that post for six years.
After serving in the Merrimack County attorney’s office for 18 months, she was chosen by the Belknap County commissioners to fill a vacancy as Belknap County attorney, then was elected in her own right four more times over a 13-year period.
The Belknap County work, she says, was the highlight of her career.
“It was the hardest time and the most rewarding time,” Noether says. “I probably worked 60 hours a week.”
One memorable case involved a woman whose boyfriend had raped her. It came out in deposition that the two had engaged in unusual sex games in the past that included reenacting a rape scene. But during questioning, the woman “held her head high” and said rape was different from those jointly planned activities, Noether remembers. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, setting a precedent for the tenet that the promiscuity of a victim cannot be used to disqualify her credibility.
Her most dramatic case involved a man from Massachusetts, Charles Carr, who picked up women on two separate occasions and drove them to his family camp in Alton, where he raped them all night. The second woman was able to escape when he stopped for gas in Concord, and she ran from the car and got help from police. But Carr subsequently disappeared, and when his vehicle was found in a river in Maine, police suspected he had staged his own death.
Eighteen years later, authorities in Texas located a man they believed was Charles Carr living under an assumed name and he was brought to New Hampshire for trial. One of the victims, 15 at the time of the rape, was now in her 30s and living in Buenos Aires. The other was still in the Boston area.
“We worked like dogs to assemble the case,” Noether says, retrieving evidence still at the Alton police department, working closely with Texas Rangers, Massachusetts State Police, local officers, and even flying in the witness from Buenos Aires.
Noether says she will never forget the courtroom scene when the younger victim was on the stand.
“There was a very dramatic moment where I asked her to point him out. She hadn’t seen him since she was 15 and she was now 32, and she said, ‘That’s him. I would know him anywhere.’”
Carr was convicted and sentenced to 26 to 57 years in state prison.
In 1997, Noether was named New Hampshire County Attorney of the Year.
She has some 171 trials under her belt and has won the admiration of both colleagues and opposing counsel.
“She is one of the most tenacious advocates I’ve ever met,” says Concord attorney Robert Stein, who has known Noether for decades. “Personally, she is one of the most interesting persons, as well.”
From the Belknap post, Noether was tapped by the state attorney general’s office to become chief of the Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau, a senior assistant attorney general, and later enforcement coordinator for the Department of Environmental Services. She retired in 2019 but maintains her license and still does occasional legal work.
She is a volunteer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness – New Hampshire (NAMI-NH) and has been offering free yoga classes via Zoom to fellow volunteers.
Noether is also a founding member of the Greater Lakes Child Advocacy Center, and a founder and incorporator of New Beginnings Crisis Center, a lakes region agency that combats domestic violence. She was the 2007 recipient of the William Paine Award, given annually to an individual who brings a multidisciplinary approach to reducing domestic violence.
She sees many changes in the Bar since her career began, particularly regarding the role of women. Noether remembers times when male attorneys were so dismissive of women on the bench that some declined to use the phrase “your honor.”
“I think it has changed a little because of the sheer volume of women judges,” says Noether. “It was a rarity in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”
It has also become more prosecutor-friendly, she says, where it was once “geared toward defense advocacy and not prosecutors.” She applauds the Bar’s move to have a public sector price for meetings with national speakers, to make them more affordable, and for involving more women in Bar governance.
Noether now has a part-time job working for Community Bridges, which helps individuals with disabilities and their families, and enjoys spending time with her five-year-old granddaughter and a new grandchild.
“I would not have had the career that I was privileged to have without the hard work and devotion to justice of my staff in all of my jobs, and also the judges and the various clerks of courts office personnel,” says Noether, who singles out Justices Larry Smukler and the late Harry Perkins with particular gratitude.
She adds that she is especially indebted to her husband, Ken Norton, for his constant support.
Elaine de Mello, director of suicide prevention services at NAMI-NH and a longtime friend, says Noether’s life “truly has been one of service to others, with particular care for people in need and people affected by domestic violence, or children who haven’t had the opportunities others may have had. She dedicates her life to others.”