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Bar News - November 21, 2003

Judge Hugh Bownes, 83, Remembered as Civil Rights Champion


RETIRED FIRST CIRCUIT Court of Appeals Judge Hugh H. Bownes, a champion of civil rights who was lauded by colleagues for his humanity and compassion, died Wednesday, Nov. 5, at Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Conn. He was 83.

"The legal profession and judiciary have lost a stalwart of monumental proportions and an absolute defender of the Bill of Rights. Those of us who knew him well have lost a dear friend," said Concord attorney Robert A. Stein of Stein, Volinsky & Callaghan.

Bownes was born in New York City in 1920, grew up in the city and graduated from Columbia University (on scholarship) in 1941. (See the Nov. 7 issue of Bar News for excerpts of an oral history interview with Judge Bownes about his life and career.) He served as a Marine during World War II, suffering war injuries and earning the Silver Star and Purple Heart.

He earned his law degree from Columbia in 1948 and was admitted to the NH Bar the same year. He began practicing law in Laconia, where he lived most of his life. He served on the Laconia City Council and was the city's mayor from 1963-1965.

Bownes' judicial career began with two years of service on the bench of the NH Superior Court, followed by his appointment to the U.S. District Court in Concord by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1977, he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit by President Jimmy Carter; he was the first NH judge appointed to the First Circuit Court. Bownes went on senior status in January of 1990 and retired from the court Sept. 1, 2003. He continued to hear cases and write opinions until his retirement.

Bownes was a staunch Democrat who was known for his rulings supporting civil and constitutional rights. Among them was a 1977 order declaring New Hampshire's prisons harsh, inhumane and in violation of inmates' rights, as well as a danger to prison employees. As a result, the state spent millions overhauling the prison system.

Bownes' friends and colleagues described him as a great humanitarian with a fine legal mind who believed that everyone is entitled to fair representation under the law. Evidence of that fact: As a young attorney, Bownes, despite being a war veteran, represented a Conway man accused of hiding Communists. Bownes took up the unpopular cause because of his belief in fostering a fair justice system.

As a judge, Bownes was known to be evenhanded, but tough. He demanded that attorneys appearing in his courtroom be prepared - and on time. He would fine lawyers $50 for appearing late, money that went into his court's library fund. Stein recalls an incident in which, due to a blinding snowstorm, he appeared late in Bownes' court. "I didn't have $50, but as soon as I came into the courtroom, I began emptying my pockets, which made him laugh, so he ordered that my $50 fine be suspended," Stein remembers.

Bownes led by example; the same level of preparedness and skill he expected of attorneys appearing before him, he demanded of himself, according to First Circuit Senior Judge Norman H. Stahl, a friend of Bownes since 1956. "He worked very hard and was always prepared," said Stahl.

"He made people want to behave and do well in court by the standard he set," added Stein.

Bownes' work on the bench was marked by "an eminent fairness," said Stahl. "Whenever you appeared before him, you had the sense that you were going to be treated fairly and objectively," he said.

He also had a superior knowledge of the law, said Stein. "His instincts were always very good - he was right on in terms of the law," he said. "He had good common sense, he was insightful and patient."

But what made Bownes an outstanding judge and person, colleagues say, was his great sense of humanity. "He recognized that we deal with human beings, not just statistics on paper. He truly understood how the law as we shape it affects people," said Stahl.

Attorney J. Campbell Harvey of Harvey & Mahoney, Manchester, clerked for Bownes from 1975 to 1977. She said that initially Bownes had a difficult time dealing with her as a woman in the professional workplace, but his innate sense of fairness helped him to "learn quickly."

"I soon found him to be a very compassionate, very smart, great man. He had such a big heart. He never lost sight of the little people, the people litigating the cases, or the issues," Harvey said. "He used a grounded, intuitive humanism as he applied his fine legal mind."

Friends and colleagues also described Bownes as "extraordinarily optimistic," "kind," considerate," "open-minded," "fun" and "someone who always made you feel comfortable and at home."

Even through a stroke and a battle with prostate cancer, Bownes kept his upbeat outlook on life, Stahl said.

And he was a man who was extremely proud of his positions, but who remained humble. "He was proud to say that he was one of the last of the liberal judges, was proud of his service to his country and his war wounds, and proud of being an absolute defender of the Bill of Rights, but at the same time he was someone who understood the term 'humility' more than anyone else," said Stein.

Harvey recalls that during her first year clerking for Bownes, he closed the office and took the staff for a ride to look at the foliage. "That is one of my fondest memories of him - it really captured the sense of perspective and balance he had, his enjoyment of where he lived and the people he worked with. He really made us feel like we were his family," she said.

"We have lost a lawyer who practiced as one should, whose word meant everything, and a judge who was eminently fair and who always tried to do the right thing. He was a dear friend and I will miss him a lot," Stahl said.

"He was a judge whose humanism and compassion for the little guy will be missed," agreed Harvey.

Judge Hugh Bownes, a decorated World War II veteran, served as a federal judge from 1977 until his retirement in September. Among his most famous cases was a 1977 order that found that New Hampshire's state prisons were harsh, inhumane and violated inmates' rights.

Memorial Service for Judge Bownes

A public memorial service for First Circuit Judge Hugh H. Bownes will be held on Saturday, Dec. 13, 2003, at 11:30 a.m. at the Warren B. Rudman U.S. Courthouse in Concord. More details on the service will be posted on both this Web site and the court's Web site,, as they are available.



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