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Bar News - December 15, 2006

Judge Maher: A Man Who Will Never Retire


After 23 years as a probate judge (with 16 of those years as administrative justice of New Hampshire’s probate court) John R. Maher is moving on. To say he is retiring would be a mistake.


“For one thing, I’m going back to school,” says Maher, who will officially step down from the bench on Jan. 1, 2007. He plans to work towards a master’s degree in the area of mediation at Woodbury College in Vermont. “We have pioneered a mediation program in the probate court, with the great help of Marty Wagner, the probate court administrative coordinator, and Attorney Peter Wolfe. I’ve also been called upon by Judge Bob Morrill of the Superior Court to assist in the Rule 170 mediation cases in Rockingham County.”


The probate mediation program has 10 mediators working throughout the state. “These mediators (half of whom are non-lawyers) are paid from a court fund—so the parties don’t have to pay for the service,” explains Maher. “According to our most recent figures, more than 65 percent of the cases have had a positive resolution through mediation.”


Maher has already taken courses at the Strauss Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine Law School. “But this program at Woodbury will prepare me for more types of dispute resolution work, from business to finance to family. Actually, there is a much larger universe of dispute resolution work outside of the court system,” Maher says.


Maher was named administrative judge for the probate courts by the NH Supreme Court in 1990. At the time, the Court was responding to recommendations in a long-range planning study that is now commonly known as the Leahy/Dufresne Report. Although some small changes had been made to the probate court in the 1940s, procedures had not been over-hauled for at least a hundred years. It was apparent to the supreme court that major changes were needed.


A More Responsive Probate

Maher was determined to make the probate court more responsive to the needs of the public. He started by simplifying probate procedures without diminishing the legislature’s intent to maintain proper oversight of estates and trusts. Now, estates in which there is no litigation can be resolved by summary administration or waiver of administration in six or seven months.


Furthermore, Maher moved for better education and training of judges and pushed for revision of probate forms. In this latter effort, Marty Wagner again played a large part. “In fact,” says Maher, “the forms for our probate court are now among the best in the nation. Anyone can go to our Web site and find the needed forms—and there are even ‘pop-ups’ that assist in filling them out—and there are tips on filing. We have been quite mindful of the needs of pro se parties and, to that end, there are also instructions on how to present your case in court.”


Maher hopes that in the coming year there will be a “live” help desk at the Rockingham County Probate Court, which members of the public can call directly to get assistance no matter in which probate court they may be filing their cases.


From the National College of Probate Judges (of which he is a past president), Maher learned about the Guardianship Monitoring Program. For the past ten years, the probate court has been training “volunteer court researchers” and “visitors” under the leadership of Wagner, the state coordinator for the program. Court visitors meet with guardians and their wards and provide information to the court regarding the cases. The volunteers are the eyes and ears of the court. AARP has assisted in the recruitment of senior citizens to assist in this work.

Maher gained a special appreciation for the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program when he served in the Family Division and he would like to explore the possibilities of becoming a CASA himself after he finishes his courses at Woodbury.


Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers  

Beyond the sphere of the probate court, Maher’s endeavors have included one of the most significant efforts on behalf of fellow attorneys and judges that has ever been made in New Hampshire. “Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) is my favorite project,” says Maher. A recovering alcoholic himself, Maher is acutely aware of the pressures and tensions that lawyers and judges face and how alcohol and other drugs can destroy their lives.


“A friend from Massachusetts who helped me in my recovery asked me if I’d be interested in starting a Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers group in New Hampshire, such as they had in Massachusetts. I was only too happy to help,” says Maher. “I’m a firm believer that it is in giving that we receive. Doing this work only strengthens me.”


LCL meets once a month at the Manchester Country Club. Maher says that one of the future goals of LCL is to become more available to women attorneys. “I believe there is a need that is not being met, that at present women with addictions feel very reticent about becoming involved with LCL. We hope to overcome that reticence.”


Quick to praise the work of others, Maher says that attorney John Tobin (NH Legal Assistance) is also helping lawyers with alcohol and drug problems (through the Lawyers Assistance Committee of the NHBA). “If ever there were an apostle in this world, it’s John Tobin,” he says. “John has done great work in this area and we collaborate together frequently.”


Maher says that Chief Justice John T. Broderick and the NH Supreme Court have been very supportive of the work of LCL. In fact, a Supreme Court Rule establishing a professionally-run lawyers’ assistance program is close to adoption. “I’m so pleased that we will soon be joining many other states with a paid director for the program. And, it would not have happened without John Broderick.”


“Of all the things I’ve done in my life, I am most proud of this work,” says Maher.


Other Endeavors

Even though LCL is Maher’s passion, he has an amazing array of other interests. For 15 years he has been involved in hospice volunteering. “You connect with one individual, helping in any way you can during the last days or weeks—or even months—of that person’s life. You run errands, visit with him or her, read—whatever will help—it’s their agenda—until the end.”


Maher and his wife Skye have also become deeply interested in volunteer work in Bay St. Louis, Miss., one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. “We have made three visits to Bay St. Louis,” Maher says. “We just need to do more as a country. We don’t hear so much about it anymore, but the devastation there is still so overwhelming.”


One unintended consequence of having flood insurance, he went on to say, is that so few people have it that when they are able to rebuild, they have no neighbors, but are surrounded by derelict and abandoned homes. Furthermore, many people are losing their property because they can’t pay the taxes on their land.


“If anyone wants to become involved more directly in giving, consider Father Sebastian at St. Rose de Lima Church in Bay St. Louis. Miss. He’s doing so much. If you don’t know where to send your money, send it there,” says Maher.


Another one of Maher’s projects is the Suffolk Law School Alumni Loan Fund. “We hope to help Suffolk graduates who are working in public interest jobs and social justice positions where their salaries aren’t very high. We know many law schools assist their graduates, but more private help is needed.”

Will There Be Time To Relax?

But aren’t there some activities that are just plain fun in Judge Maher’s future? “Oh yes,” he says. “Skye and I plan to visit South Africa in April—and next December we’re planning a trip to the Antarctic. We love traveling and we’ve done a lot of it. We especially love Central and South America.” In fact, Maher is teaching himself Spanish; he has even covered the walls of his private bathroom at the courthouse with drill sheets of Spanish vocabulary and grammar.


When asked how he and his wife first met, Maher says with a smile. “Actually, we met on Beacon Hill in Boston. I was in law school at Suffolk and working in a law office. I was taking the trash out and I saw this lovely girl walk by. So, I took out the trash at the same time the next day and waited, hoping she would pass by again. She did and I followed her to a café—and eventually persuaded her to go out with me. She was an undergraduate at Suffolk.”


He adds, “I really lucked out. She’s the most thoughtful, bright, creative woman—and her sense of values is so well-grounded. One of her primary goals is to protect the environment—see how it can best serve the needs of people and animals and yet be preserved.”


The Mahers have two children, a son, Ian and a daughter, Mariah. “They both make bread for the soul,” says Maher with a laugh. “My daughter is a baker—and my son is a Unitarian minister.”


Anyone who knows Maher knows that he has a fine singing voice and has acted in many musicals at Prescott Park in Portsmouth. “I’ve done a lot of summer stock—and I know all the old songs—the ones from the classic Broadway musicals, like Carousel and Brigadoon. My wife tells me that perhaps I should learn some new ones—the old songs are getting pretty tired!”


He says he will sing some of those songs as he hikes the Appalachian Trail during the months/years ahead. Maher plans to hike the trail in sections, walking a couple of states at a time, like North Carolina and Virginia, for instance. “I’ll walk and think,” he says. When asked what he would think about, he pauses for a moment. “That’s a good question,” he responds. “It would probably be easier to tell you what I won’t be thinking about! But I know I’ll be thinking about my wife and children….”


When Maher was first appointed as Probate Judge of Rockingham County, Gerry Giles of the District Court gave him a plaque, which still hangs on the wall in his office.


It reads:

                                    A good judge

                                    Listens courteously

                                    Answers wisely

                                    Considers soberly

                                    Decides impartially



In his “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tinturn Abbey,” Wordsworth mentions, “That best portion of a good man’s life: his little nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”


There’s a lot to remember about Judge Maher—but for every act recognized and praised, there are a hundred other “nameless” ones that go unnoticed but that make a difference in someone’s life.


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