By Kathie Ragsdale
Bar members, friends and additional well-wishers gathered last month to celebrate New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Steward Dalianis and present her with the Nashua Bar Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
After nearly 40 years on the bench, Dalianis, 69, has announced she will be retiring April 1, 2018, in keeping with the state Constitution, which requires judges to step down at 70.
A highlight of the Nov. 8 event was the screening of a 12-minute video, called “The First,” documenting Dalianis’ many trail-blazing achievements, among them: first woman appointed to the state Superior Court, first to the state Supreme Court, and first to the position of chief justice.
“I’m surprised she doesn’t have a perpetual headache from all the glass ceilings she has broken,” quipped former Superior Court Judge Bernard J. Hampsey in the film.
Attorney Kent Barker, a member of the Nashua Bar’s 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award Committee, in his program notes described some of the obstacles Dalianis faced along the way – such as, a local politician who asked Dalianis, when she was a Superior Court nominee in 1980, whether it was true she was pregnant and if so, whether she planned to leave the bench after being confirmed. Dalianis responded that she was indeed pregnant, had other children and had never missed a day of work because of them.
She was confirmed as the state’s first female Superior Court judge.
Barker also expanded on a theme introduced in the video by former Supreme Court justices Carol Ann Conboy and former Superior Court Chief Justice Walter Murphy; they told how Dalianis’ sheer competence averted controversy over her presence on the bench and paved the way for other women to follow.
“There were some male members of the Bar who complained about appearing before a female judge at first,” Barker remembered. “Those complaints began to fade as Linda issued orders that were fair and promptly written. Trials were conducted with careful attention and thoughtful rulings. There was nothing to complain about.”
“The way she did it was key,” added Barker, who practiced in front of Dalianis in the 1980s. “If it had been a big deal and the fact that she was a woman had found its way into the courtroom and had made a difference in the way cases were processed, it wouldn’t have worked. Instead, if you tried a case in front of her, it was the same as trying it before anybody else. She was smart and nice. Things just went very smoothly. How could anybody question whether a woman could be a judge when there was a judge like that?”
In 2000, Dalianis became the state’s first female Supreme Court justice and, in 2010, its first woman chief justice. Nashua attorney Katherine J. Morneau, also a member of the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award Committee, said that preparing for the event helped her appreciate the pioneering work of women like Dalianis.
“When we started putting all the ‘firsts’ down on paper, I was just blown away,” said Morneau, who has been practicing for 12 years. “I see myself as pretty actively supporting women lawyers across the state. If I don’t know these details, my guess is there’s a lot of us my age and younger that don’t fully know about all she’s done for us, paving the way, paving the way to the bench, paving the way to respect.”
Morneau said she belongs to a firm with four lawyers, three paralegals and three prospective interns – all female – and she plans to schedule a day to sit them all down to watch “The First” video to appreciate the women who came before them.
Dalianis has her legal roots in Nashua, where she worked as a young lawyer with the firm of Hamblett and Kerrigan before taking on a position as marital master in 1979. Nashua Bar members said they wanted to do their best to celebrate her as one of their own. Contacted by the NH Bar News about receiving the Nashua Bar’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Dalianis responded with what colleagues might call characteristic modesty: “I have been a member of the Nashua Bar Association for nearly 44 years,” she said. “After all that time, it’s humbling to know that my friends still care about me. I regard this award as a very high honor.”
Published in the December 20, 2017 edition of New Hampshire Bar News.