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Bar News - May 5, 2006

Judge Perkins Reflects on Pleasure of Working with Juries


Hon. Harry Perkins
Photo by Bea Lewis, The Citizen

With his shock of silver hair and Lincolnesque whiskers, there is little to distinguish Judge Harry
Perkins from the portraits of his 19th century predecessors that hang on the walls of the Belknap County Superior Court.


But the judge, who wraps up an 18-year career on the bench this week, has had the mixed blessing of occupying a front row seat in what he calls “a tragedy that never ends.”


That’s the downside of the job, Perkins explains, when tragedy and cruelty are an everyday backdrop. But the man who reserves his poker face for sentencings and a broad smile for friends and co-workers wouldn’t trade his time on the bench.


“Sitting as a trial court judge is a never-ending charade of what is happening around you. There is something new every day. You think you’ve seen it all and heard it all but you haven’t. It’s one great tragedy that, for the most part, never ends,” he said.


Appointed as a special justice to the Concord District Court by Governor John Sununu in 1985, Perkins was elevated to the superior court bench just three years later.

He came to his love of the law honestly: His late father, Francis Perkins, worked for the U.S. Treasury Department.  “He was an untouchable. That’s the honest-to-Gods’ truth,” says Perkins who grew up in Concord.


The senior Perkins was attending Cleveland Law School when his first son was born. Harry Perkins recounted that he was a junior in college when, “like most kids,” he came to the sudden realization that he needed to plan for a future career.  He said he “buckled down” and applied himself to his studies, earned good grades and was accepted at American University.


While attending law school at night, Perkins worked on Capitol Hill. He started with Senator Styles Bridges and became the doorman for the Senate.


He soon worked his way into the cloakroom and recalled working all day, attending classes and then returning to the Senate. He recounted he often remained there until the wee hours of the morning if a filibuster was in process.  Before he left Washington, Perkins was third in line for secretary of the minority.


Despite his connection with the law, Perkins said, it didn’t readily become a career choice until he was in law school and working on Capitol Hill.  “I became very interested in the practice of law, which I did for 25 years,” he said.


He gradated from law school in 1963, took the bar in June, and was notified in August that he had passed on his first try. He promptly gave his notice and returned to Concord to practice law with his father.


Francis Perkins was appointed to the superior court in 1968 and served until 1976 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. The Perkinses are the only father-and-son team in New Hampshire to have both served in superior court.


Prior to coming to the bench, Perkins practiced law with his father and later with Chuck Douglas and David Brock, both of whom would go on to serve on New Hampshire’s highest court.


Perkins says he’s enjoyed his time on the court. The law remains ever-interesting, he says, as opinions issued from state and federal courts set new precedents.


Sentencing criminals is among the most difficult things Perkins must do, often on a daily basis.  “There is a fine line between what is fair and just for everyone — the state, the victim and the defendant,” Perkins said of the delicate balance that must be considered when crafting a sentence.


“On occasion, though, it’s not hard at all,” said Perkins, recounting that, as a young judge, he was faced with a defendant who had committed “a horrible sexual assault on a little girl.  When I [gave him the maximum sentence], I felt justice had been served,” said Perkins.


He says one of the greatest joys in serving on the court is the opportunity it gives him to interact with juries. “I love people,” Perkins said.


While some judges read scripted copies of instructions to jurors, Perkins speaks directly to them. Usually, Perkins said, “for the most part juries pretty much get it right. He continued, “We go to law school to learn how to dance around on the head of a pin. Then we practice law for years. As judges we instruct juries on the law and they understand it,” said Perkins, shaking his head.


Hearing victims’ families’ talk about the painful impact of crimes, Perkins said, is a tough part of his job. “You don’t become immune, but you can’t take it home or you wouldn’t survive. You have to close the door and leave it there,” he said.


An avid fly fisherman and fly-tier, Perkins said that, in retirement, he hopes to have more time to wet a line and continue his hobby of commercially tying Atlantic salmon flies and teaching fly-tying.


But he won’t entirely leave the law. He said he hopes to do some private mediation, noting there is a substantial demand for civil cases being mediated outside of court.  “I can’t imagine getting up in the morning without something meaningful to do,” he said.


One of his greatest joys as a judge has been the chance it has given him to relate to juries. After jurors return a verdict, Perkins always makes a point of visiting with them and thanking them for participating in the criminal justice process.


Recently, he entered the jury room to find himself on the receiving end of a cake in celebration of his pending retirement, and a card signed by members of the panel who put their seat numbers next to their signatures — more reminiscent of a sports team honoring a cherished coach.


“I’ve had a wonderful staff who have been very, very helpful to me. I rely on them to do the job we do here and they’re a large, large part of it,” he said.


In his years on the bench, Perkins said he has found that sex and drugs are the shared common denominator for the bulk of crimes. “If you dig deep enough in almost any case, you’ll come across sex and drugs. Now it’s drugs more and more,” he said.


A weighted case load study, Perkins said, would demonstrate that, once the new family court is online, taking marital matters out of the superior court, the remaining Belknap County Superior Court judge, Larry Smukler, will have more time for criminal matters.


But Perkins maintains that reassigning the marital matters will do little to lessen the case load. The state is now proposing to assign 1.5 judges to the Belknap County Superior Court and Perkins expressed his concern that it is not enough.


On a recent Monday, the two judges picked six juries and will collectively steer a like number of jury trials to conclusion in the next two weeks.


Perkins is concerned that the heavy case load left for Smukler, who will serve alone six months out of the year, may prove too much, prompting burnout.


Perkins also has concerns that, if the criminal case load remains consistent, the civil and equity docket will suffer.


The Belknap County Attorney’s Office, Perkins said, presents 70-90 indictments to a grand jury every six weeks in the process that initiates criminal proceedings against a defendant. Each of those cases must be dealt with on a set timeline to avoid violating the speedy trial rule.


Perkins fears that, because a full-time judge will not replace him, that speedy trial mandate may not be met and that, in order to accommodate the large criminal case load, the civil and equity dockets will be neglected.


While Perkins said he was initially reluctant to retire, he is gradually coming to accept it.  “It’s open season on judges and it’s going to get worse. I’m getting done at the right time.”


This article first appeared April 3, 2006 in The Citizen, Laconia, NH and is reprinted with permission.

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