Bar News - May 18, 2007
Court’s Corner: Judge Morrill, Founder of Academy Program, Reflects on Bench Years
By: Beverly Rorick
“When I look back over my 20 years as a judge, what I’m most proud of is the Academy Program,” said the Hon. Robert E.K. Morrill, known as “Judge Bob” to his friends and also to many citizens of New Hampshire who have benefited through the program. “It’s my greatest and most treasured accomplishment.”
Morrill sat as a superior court judge, first in Sullivan County and then in Rockingham County from1986, when he was appointed to the bench by Gov. John Sununu, until he retired in February 2007 at the age of 60.
The Academy Program is an alternative sentencing program that helps low-level offenders get their lives back on track. The rules are very strict. If chosen for the program, the offender gets a chance to begin again, with help from the court and social/educational programs. But if he or she doesn’t show up for work just one time—or misses a counseling appointment—or fails to report to his/her mentor (participants must report every day)—the offender, with few exceptions, goes directly to jail, with sentencing to follow. Anybody who enters the program has to be serious about it.
“We began the Academy Program in Sullivan County,” Morrill said. “Instead of just sending people to jail—from which they often went into the prison system for a year or more—I wanted to help them change their self-destructive behaviors. I managed to get a small group interested in the project—Sullivan County Attorney Mark Hathaway, NH Public Defender Jan Peterson and Dan Kierstead, who was at that time chief probation/parole officer for Sullivan County.”
The four sat down to brainstorm—and then formed a task force. “Our premise was that if we could somehow supervise and rehabilitate substance abusers by helping them find jobs, get off drugs and/or alcohol, get back into school—whatever it took—we could really help people and also save the state a lot of money,” he said.
“Six or eight months later we still did not have any funding or other support, but we had some committed educators. So we decided to begin where we were. We got the Upper Valley Community Health Center (UVCH) to fund us.”
“I had gone to Jesse Turner of the UVCH for help. He asked me, ‘What do you want me to do?’ and I told him, ‘Hold my hand and jump off this cliff with me!’” Morrill said with a laugh.
The second year the program received funding from the Dept. of Corrections and the judicial branch. After that, the Dept. of Corrections took up the funding permanently; it recognized immediately how much money could be saved by sending fewer people to prison. “And since the beginning in 1993-94, we have actually saved the state millions in incarceration costs,” said Morrill.
Fair but Strict Brings Rewards
In Sullivan County alone, where Judge Morrill sat for some 15 years, there have been hundreds of graduates of the program. Families and children benefit, too, as the graduates often rebuild their marriages, catch up on child support and start being better parents. Some also end up owning their own homes, running businesses, going to college. Almost everyone who enters the program earns a GED at the very least—although some have had to start at the most basic levels by learning to read and write.
“The program has been successful beyond our wildest dreams,” said Morrill. “We have so many great stories to tell. There’s the young man who graduated and then entered the computer field; he now makes over six figures a year; there’s the heroin addict who went on to Babson College and got his MBA; and one of my favorite stories is about a man in his sixties who had 14 priors; I didn’t think he had a chance, but one of the judges in the program accepted him—and he graduated and is now helping his grandkids.”
“My colleagues have done so much, especially presiding justices Patricia Coffey, of Rockingham County; Kathleen McGuire of Merrimack County; and Carol Ann Conboy of the Hillsborough Northern District. In fact, in 2003, the four of us were honored with the William A. Grimes Award for Judicial Professionalism.”
Morrill has also received the Award for Judicial Excellence given by the National Conference of Trial Judges at the annual meeting of the ABA in 1999. That year, only four such national awards were given. He was also presented with the first ever award as Trial Judge of the Year in 1994, from the NH Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates.
But more important than any award is the satisfaction of seeing lives changed for the better. “I believe the program has made all of us judges—and the county attorneys—and public defenders—more understanding and compassionate—and it has developed a new level of trust between the latter two groups,” Morrill commented.
The Yankee Auction—Mediation Made Unique
Another aspect of Morrill’s career is his involvement in alternative dispute resolution. Largely through the influence of Peter Wolfe, former court clerk for Sullivan County and court system mediation coordinator (Wolfe has recently retired from the system), Morrill began to test different methods of settling cases outside of court. “Peter encouraged me to try this, try that, to see if there might be a common ground where attorneys could meet—and thus avoid litigation.
“Eventually, I came up with what I called the ‘Yankee Auction,’ for want of a better term—and it seemed to work.”
When asked to explain the process (which took place in chambers) Morrill said that after consulting the attorneys for both sides, he would choose a figure—say in a personal injury case—then talk with each attorney, presenting the figure for them to discuss with their respective clients. “Now if they both came back with a ‘yes’—and neither ever knew what the other said—then the case would settle. If one or both said ‘no’ then the case would go on to litigation. So nothing was lost—and I think we settled about a third of such cases in that way, saving everybody, including the court, time and money.”
Morrill continues his mediation services privately now that he has stepped down from the bench (one can’t really say he has retired!).
Helping People an Early Goal
Before becoming a judge, Morrill practiced with Hall, Morse, Anderson, Miller and Spinella (formerly Hall, Morse, Gallagher and Anderson) in Concord.
“I was attracted early in life to the idea of helping people,” he said. “I just hadn’t decided how. My father was a minister….But I used to see Mr. Dudley Orr, out in his yard, mowing his lawn in almost formal wear—dress pants, shirt, tie, oxfords—and I also saw that he had a nice house and car. I asked my dad, ‘What does he do?’ My dad told me Mr. Orr was a lawyer. When I then asked what lawyers did, my father said, ‘They help people.’ I already knew my dad helped people, too—but Mr. Orr seemed to make a lot more money doing it—so I decided to become a lawyer!”
But to “Judge Bob” money has never been the most important thing in life. “I have a wonderful wife,” he said, “and two great daughters. In addition, I’ve spent many years doing work I love.”
And then there’s golf. “It’s my other passion. In fact, when I decided to retire, I said to the people at Rockingham County Superior Court, where I’d gone after leaving Sullivan County, let’s just have a nice lunch, not a big dinner—no fuss, please.”
“But you know what they did? When I came in on the morning of my retirement lunch, the whole courthouse had been turned into a nine-hole golf course (see picture). They had even put down big squares of cardboard with sand on them and everyone played. It was so great—and so thoughtful and creative.”
So, there’ll be golf in the judge’s future and even though his “retirement” will be a busy one, maybe there’ll still be time to finish writing that mystery novel, the third one he has written in his “spare” time—or his newest novel about the man who never asks for anything for himself, but only for what will help others.
Now where do you suppose that idea came from?