Bar News - November 3, 2006
Cout's Corner: Panel to Women’s Bar: Road to Bench Can Be Tough but Worth Pursuing
By: Anita S. Becker
From left to right, During a break in the NHWBA program, "The Path to the Bench", Chief Justice of the Superior Court Judge Robert Lynn speaks with Attorney Kate Hanna of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green as Associate Justice of the Superior Court Jean Burling talks to Leila Dal Pos of McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton.
Three New Hampshire judges and the co-chair of the Judicial Selection Commission (JSC) acknowledged that the state has a small percentage of women judges compared to female representation in the NH Bar and the state population (see related table). During the recent NH Women’s Bar Association program, “The Path to the Bench: Demystifying the Judicial Selection Process for Women,” held at the Derryfield Country Club in Manchester on Oct. 20, the four panel members strongly encouraged more women lawyers to let their judicial ambitions be known and to apply for judge vacancies.
The panel included the Hon. Jean K. Burling, associate justice of the NH Superior Court and the first female lawyer appointed to the New Hampshire bench; the Hon. Sharon N. DeVries, a judge in the Portsmouth District Court who received her first judicial appointment as a special justice of the then-Rye Municipal Court at age 30; the Hon. Robert J. Lynn, chief justice of the NH Superior Court; and Jill K. Blackmer, an employment law attorney with Orr & Reno of Concord and co-chair of the Judicial Selection Commission (JSC).
Judge Sharon DeVreis, of the Portsmouth District Court, offers practical advice on what being a judge entails and recounts her own experience with the judicial appointment process.
The first half of the program was presented by the three judges and covered “Being a Judge: What You Want to Know” and the second half introduced the expertise of Blackmer, in addition to the judges on the panel, and focused on “Applying for Judicial Appointment: Understanding the Process and Tips for Success.”
Blackmer and the judges provided insight into the judicial selection process and shared their views on the pros and cons of being a judge in New Hampshire and its impact on their professional and personal lives. The audience was encouraged to ask questions and the judges and Blackmer offered practical, candid advice about choosing and applying for a career in the judiciary.
In addition to discussing judgeships in the district and superior courts, the panel also mentioned the options of becoming Family Division judges or marital masters or appellate judges.
Blackmer said that one of the benefits of the Executive Branch’s use of the JSC as a screening mechanism for finding qualified judicial candidates is that it makes the process less political and more objective, and it can get names before the Governor and Executive Council that in the past they would not have seen due to the lack of political contacts of the candidate. Part of the Commission’s mission includes outreach to local bars and the placement of advertisements and announcements in public media to find qualified candidates (see related sidebar). Of the 11 commissioners, four are women.
There is no “approved” career track to ensure inclusion on the list of approved names to go before the governor, said Blackmer, who adds that non-traditional careers are not barriers to being selected. “We say, ‘what can this person bring to the position?’”
Blackmer notes that in the 18 months she has been on the Commission, generally, 50 percent or less of the applicants for judicial vacancies are women, and frequently there is a considerably smaller percentage of women compared to men who apply. She says that the Commission encourages qualified women to apply.
Burling advised the group that if they want to become judges they should not be discouraged by the complexity or political nature of the selection process. She pointed out that there are relatively few openings and often many candidates. “Don’t give up if you don’t get the position you want the first time; it might take more than one application.” She says that by applying again, maybe even several times, candidates will become familiar to the appointing authority and that circumstances and competition are different for every selection.
“I know it is difficult for many women to promote themselves,” said Burling. But, she explained, because politics and networking often do give one candidate the edge over another, she recommends women lawyers to become active in their communities and get to know community leaders, including Executive Council members. “You have to be willing to put yourself out there.”
DeVries spoke about the 24/7 nature of being a judge, especially at the District Court and Family Court, where she and her colleagues in similar positions are on-call during designated family court weeks and available for towns in the district needing assistance in off-hours regarding search warrants, emergency placement orders, domestic violence-related orders, and other time-sensitive issues. She also notes that as a judge you give up some personal freedom to remain perceived as a neutral party in that you cannot be openly political, can’t join certain clubs or organizations, and your family is impacted by your role in the community. She said that despite this, the rewards of being a judge are satisfying. “Don’t talk yourself out of applying.”
Lynn and DeVries said that trial background and clerkships are good experiences to prepare for a judgeship. However, Burling stated that “the fact that you don’t have trial experience is not critical, that can be learned; what is more important is your temperament and ability to make decisions.” For the appellate courts, Lynn said that it is helpful to have litigation experience but it is not essential. The other judges agreed that the quality of “judicial temperament” is one of the key things to being a successful jurist.
When asked by an audience member what qualities comprised “judicial temperament,” the jurists opined personality traits that they thought would be compatible for being a judge. These included: Self-awareness, respect for others, neutrality/impartiality, fairness, listening ability, integrity, accessibility, level-headedness, and a lack of disciplinary actions. DeVries explained that being a judge also requires a “thick skin” and a good sense of humor.
“Sit in court for a full day and see if you can put yourself into the robe and do what it requires,” recommended DeVries to women who are considering a judgeship.
Gender Diversity on the NH Judiciary
Gender diversity among sitting judges throughout the judicial branch is approximately as follows:
Branch Total # Women % Women
# Judges Judges Judges
Supreme Court 5 1 20%
Superior Court 25 5 20%
District Court 67 9 13%
Membership statistics compiled by the NH Bar Association indicate that the number of female members of the NH Bar in 2006 is 1,948, out of a total membership of 5,884, or 33.3 percent of the bar population.
Based upon data from the U.S. Census Bureau, derived from the latest national census in 2000, women comprise approximately 50.2 percent of the total population of New Hampshire.
Source: Program guide, “The Path to the Bench...”
The following information was reprinted from the NH Women’s Bar Association program guide to “The Path to the Bench: Demystifying the Judicial Selection Process for Women,” Oct. 20, 2006.
The Judicial Selection Commission
The current Judicial Selection Commission (JSC) is composed of 11 members, six of whom are licensed members of the NH Bar and five of whom are appointed from the public at large. Each of the Executive Council districts is to be represented on the Commission. Co-chairs of the Commission, who are selected by the Governor, are responsible for setting rules and procedures to aid the Commission’s selection of qualified persons for recommendation to the Governor.
Under Executive Order 2005-2, the Governor must nominate a person for judicial appointment from the list of names submitted by the Commission. The Governor may, however, request that the Commission engage in further search for qualified applicants.
In evaluating applicants for judicial nomination, the Commission is to consider:
• Legal knowledge and ability
• Judicial temperament
• Commitment to justice
• Administrative and communication skills
• Public service
The Commission may not consider any of the following with respect to evaluating an applicant:
• National origin
• Sexual orientation
• Political affiliation
[Sources: Executive Order 2005-2; NH Bar Association Web site; American Judicature Society Web site.]