By Tom Jarvis

      New Hampshire Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau, a pioneer on the bench for nearly 30 years and a champion for the drug court system in the state, has announced she will retire on September 29, 2023.

Daughter of former New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice Joseph Nadeau, she received a bachelor’s degree, with a major in Spanish, from the University of New Hampshire in 1985. She then spent a year running a guest house in Puerto Rico to strengthen her use of Spanish before attending the Franklin Pierce Law Center (now UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law).

“My dad always encouraged me to consider the law because he found so much purpose in what he did as a lawyer,” Justice Nadeau says. “He was a true inspiration. I loved listening to the stories he told my sister and me about cases, clients, and challenges throughout our childhood years. Through his example, I appreciated that the practice of law is more about understanding the human condition and using the skills we develop as lawyers to help people in need, than it is about books and court filings. He gave me the space to believe I could accomplish anything and was there to support me throughout my career, as was my stepmother. She attended every opening statement and closing argument I gave as a young lawyer. Seeing her face in the audience calmed my nerves.”

After obtaining her law degree in 1989, Justice Nadeau began working as an assistant attorney general, prosecuting homicide cases and arguing Supreme Court appeals for the State. Interestingly, she was able to make use of her Spanish skills right away, as her very first homicide case involved a Mexican victim and defendant.

A few years later, she became legal counsel to then-Governor Stephen Merrill.

“That was a really exciting opportunity,” Justice Nadeau says. “It involved speaking at the legislature, testifying about his position on bills, covering for him at speeches if he couldn’t attend, and giving him advice on any topic that he wanted to ask me about.”

In 1996, Merrill decided not to run again and appointed Nadeau to serve as an associate justice in the Superior Court.

“When Governor Merrill first nominated me to the Superior Court, my newly born twins were in the intensive care unit after having been born premature,” Justice Nadeau says. “So, my first thought was, ‘can I be a good mother and a good judge?’ I was truly honored to receive the nomination and I was excited about this new phase in my career. At the same time, I knew that women faced challenges in the workplace, which made balancing family and work difficult. I hope that over time, I achieved that balance.”

As an associate justice, Nadeau got involved with expanding the mental health court program through a committee with Circuit Court Judge James Leary (now retired).

“She had come up with the idea of creating a conference and having all the people involved in the mental health system get together, and I thought it was a great idea, but I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere,” Judge Leary says. “The next thing I knew, she had secured funding for it, and we had the Grappone Center sold out with a two-day-long conference on mental health in the court system. That just gives you an idea of her energy and her passion for these projects. She’s remarkable – a very impressive judge.”

At the same time, Justice Nadeau, after having implemented a drug court in Rockingham County where she presided, began spearheading efforts to secure funding for additional drug courts throughout the state.

“I like to think that my mother’s influence inspired me to combine my education as a lawyer with her influence as a clinical psychologist,” Justice Nadeau says. “Seeing the challenges of people who struggle with mental health and substance use issues prompted me to spend my years as chief justice promoting, creating, and supporting treatment courts throughout the state. Her model of listening, validating, and acting with empathy helped me understand what it took to be an effective drug court judge.”

In 2011, then-Governor John Lynch appointed her as Superior Court Chief Justice – the first under a new statute limiting the terms to five years – and she continued to grow the drug court system. By 2016, she had liaised with stakeholders from each county and oversaw the opening of ten drug courts. She then worked with legislators to pass legislation for statewide funding of the drug court programs.

“Her out-of-the-box thinking and enthusiasm are contagious,” says David King, Chief Administrative Judge of the Circuit Court. “She and I have worked collaboratively on many projects in tandem with both the Circuit Court and the Superior Court. I think in some ways we have sort of changed the culture between the courts. We created the Circuit Court in 2011 around the same time she came on as chief justice of the Superior Court, and we were suffering some growing pains. She was very supportive of this brand-new court and the need to reallocate precious resources that the Judicial Branch had. I’m so grateful for her support early on.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head, Justice Nadeau picked up the baton and led the charge to establish a way to safely conduct jury trials.

“During the pandemic, she took the lead, and she became our sort of pandemic expert,” Judge King says. “She kept current on the science and guided the whole court system through those really difficult times. When things that are novel come up, she’s one that digs in and figures out how to do it and just gets the job done.”

New Hampshire Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Gary Hicks echoes the sentiment about her leadership through the pandemic.

“It was quite challenging for the courts to pivot through all that,” Justice Hicks says. “She handled it with a high level of skill and helped get us all through it. She has accomplished a great deal in her role – I can’t think of any Superior Court judge that has accomplished as much as she has.”

Throughout her years on the Bench, Justice Nadeau has collaborated with many stakeholders on several groundbreaking initiatives such as e-filing for civil cases (which, by a stroke of luck, was implemented just before the pandemic), Felonies First, and CaseLines, to name a few.

Strafford County Attorney Thomas Velardi says it’s an extraordinary circumstance to have a jurist like Justice Nadeau.

“She has presided over some of the most significant changes to Superior Court practice in the last 100 years,” Velardi says. “It’s a unique experience for members of the Bar to be able to work in a truly collaborative way with the judiciary. Traditionally, the judiciary is sort of shrouded from view of those of us who are just mere practitioners. But what Chief Justice Nadeau did was she really opened the doors to the Superior Court and gave critical thought to how we can do things better. And it wasn’t just dictates coming from the court, but rather stakeholders were sat in chairs and asked to be truthful with the court on how they can do things better. That’s just part of that humble leadership that she has always shown.”

Kimberly Weibrecht, a founding partner of Weibrecht & Ecker, who clerked for Justice Nadeau in 1998, says Justice Nadeau has never shied away from a challenge and has embraced each with grace, persistence, and foresight.

“She is an innovator in judicial reform and criminal justice reform,” Weibrecht says. “She’s an outside-the-box thinker and she has brought that to her role as chief justice. She’s also a collaborator. She’s really good at bringing stakeholders together and delivering some challenging messages in ways that really diverse groups of people can hear. She has to get prosecutors and defense attorneys to talk with one another, and [she has to get] police officers to want to embrace initiatives that result in individuals that might be in jail to be in the community instead. Those are hard, complex messages and she’s able to bring those people together. It’s pretty amazing.”

Weibrecht continues: “She’s a nationally recognized expert in the drug court and people are hiring her to travel across the country to train their stakeholders in the system. Frankly, she makes New Hampshire look really good and innovative…it’s a pretty big punch for a little state.”

Beyond the Bench, Justice Nadeau is heavily involved as a board member of both the New England Association of Recovery Court Professionals and All Rise (formerly known as the National Association of Drug Court Professionals). She is also a co-chair of the New England Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative.

“In the context of national drug court leadership, she’s a rock star,” Superior Court Judge David Ruoff says. He presides over the Rockingham County Drug Court and has known Justice Nadeau since he was in law school. “She’s been a fantastic leader in the Superior Court. She listens carefully and thoughtfully, and she’s always been someone that you can go to with any question or concern and receive a very thoughtful response from. She’s very genuine and approachable, which really made her an excellent chief justice.”

At the 2023 NHBA Annual Meeting, Justice Nadeau received the Justice William A. Grimes Award for Judicial Professionalism. Photo by Tom Jarvis

Throughout her career, Justice Nadeau has received multiple awards. In 2013, she received the Caroline Gross Fellowship Award to attend the John F. Kennedy School of Government program on Executive Leadership; the  Eric Cogswell Achievement Award, recognizing commitment to addressing the over incarceration of offenders with mental illness; and the Marilla M. Ricker Achievement Award, presented by the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association to women in leadership positions.

In 2015, she received the Advocacy Award from New Futures and the Wheelock-Nardi Advocacy Award from the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester for her work advocating for those with mental health and substance use disorder. In 2016, she was awarded the Kathleen Taylor Legislator Award from the New Hampshire Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling Association.

In 2017, she received the Leadership Award from the New England Association of Drug Court Professionals, and then she received the Perkins Bass Fellowship from the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center, Dartmouth College in 2021.

Just recently, at the 2023 Annual Meeting, she received the NHBA’s Justice William A. Grimes Award for Judicial Professionalism.

Justice Nadeau says she feels lucky for where her career has taken her and that it has been satisfying every step of the way, but that it’s time to retire.

“It feels like it’s time for someone else to come take a fresh look at things,” Justice Nadeau says. “I also feel excited about the opportunity to contribute in a different way by getting more involved in the boards I’m on already, hopefully adding a couple boards here and there, and getting involved in my local community, as well.”

She says she plans to do some traveling, to take the time to become fluent in Spanish once more, and to take up the clarinet again.

Among the many mentors she has had throughout her career, Justice Nadeau counts retired New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Dalianis as one of the biggest.

“She blazed the way for women,” Justice Nadeau says. “I will never forget when I was first nominated, I was required to go to the Judicial College for two weeks in Reno, but my twins were only nine months old. The thought of doing that panicked me. I called [Justice Dalianis] and asked her if I should request an exception. She said, ‘Absolutely not. You need to go. I was a mom, and I did it. You will be a good mom and a good judge.’ That was the best advice I had from her.”

Justice Nadeau says that Superior Court Administrator Karen Gorham has also been a mentor.

“Technically, she works for me, but she is a mentor, equally,” Justice Nadeau says. “She’s a problem solver. She knows how to bridge gaps between sides that aren’t necessarily agreeing on things. She is as much of a mentor to me as my dad and Linda Dalianis were.”

Gorham says that Justice Nadeau has been a phenomenal leader who leads by example.

“I’ve been an attorney since 1990,” Gorham says. “I had so many different bosses and supervisors, and until I worked with Justice Nadeau, I did not truly understand how a great supervisor can change your work environment. I have loved my job ever since – and it’s because of her.”

Gorham continues: “She will be sorely missed in retirement, but is leaving the Superior Court with a wonderful legacy of collaboration and innovation. Her leadership has taught us all how to meet the needs of the court and its litigants while being thoughtful and compassionate in the process. She’s been a wonderful leader in the judicial branch, a wonderful colleague to her peers, and a wonderful manager to her Superior Court team. I think I can speak for everyone [when I say] that there is a sense of loyalty she has cultivated among all of us. She hasn’t asked for it, but she gets it because of her actions and the way she responds to people.”

Justice Nadeau plans to continue public service as a Senior Active Judge sitting one or two days a week, doing mediations, and covering for drug court judges, as needed.

“It’s really been a privilege to bear witness to the human condition and to use my position in a way that recognizes people need help – even when they are doing things against the law,” Justice Nadeau says of her career. “People are struggling with mental health and substance issues, and to be able to come up with ways for them to get their lives back has been really meaningful to me.”

Governor Chris Sununu has nominated Superior Court Judge Mark E. Howard to be the next Superior Court Chief Justice. If confirmed, he will succeed Justice Nadeau.