Bar News - October 19, 2007
Law Behind Bars: A Profile of Corrections Attorney John Vinson
By: Craig Sander
The roadmap of John Vinson’s life is a series of twists and turns on the highways and byways of the legal landscape and he has spent the last 40 years of his life traveling coast to coast. Presently, he is at the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office, working with Corrections Law, after spending 15 years at the NH Department of Corrections as the legal counsel for the State Prison Commissioner.
Vinson began his career after serving as an advisor to officials in the Vietnamese Navy. He applied for the JAG Corps and was selected for the Excess Leave for Law – a program that grants soldiers and sailors unpaid leave to attend law school and through which he attended Suffolk University. He graduated in 1976, with honors.
He retired from the Navy in 1987 and took a position as District Attorney to the city of San Francisco. Vinson says that the petty crime rate of the Bay City was so high that many criminals, those who stole less than $50 worth of goods or money, were let off without any charges.
“There was one guy who was arrested for fishing money out of parking meters. It was a petty theft so we let him off,” he says, smiling. “That same day I went for my daily run. I passed this parking lot and there was that same guy, fishing money out of the meters. I jumped him and the police came to arrest him again.”
Vinson recalls a particularly momentous occasion in his days with the city of San Francisco. On October 17, 1989, he and his legal team won an especially hard-fought case. As he was leaving the courtroom, a powerful earthquake rocked the city, disrupting the World Series, which was being played in San Francisco that year, and toppling bridges throughout the area. The event was covered by international news media and clean-up of the wreckage lasted months.
“It was a memorable day,” he said. “I had to drive all the way down to San Jose and back north to avoid the Bay Bridge that had collapsed. I’m sure that event was in the back of my mind when we decided to move back east.”
Vinson, in order to be closer to family, moved to New Hampshire with his wife, who had just retired from the Navy herself, and their children. He applied for a job as Counsel to the Commissioner at the NH Department of Corrections.
Vinson says it’s an exciting work opportunity for attorneys. “I do almost all types of law in this position. It’s just very, very, varied,” he says. “I handle torts, criminal, private counsel to wardens and the commissioner, and I get to work with a unique group of people who, by-and-large, handle a difficult job extremely well.”
But the employees aren’t the only workers who have a difficult job. Vinson himself has a whole host of duties from inmate regulations to employee benefit disputes.
“[I handle] inmate matters from discipline, inmate grievances, inmate claims and inmate litigation. I also do probate litigation: name changes, civil commitment and guardianships,” Vinson says. “The remainder of my time is spent doing employment law - discipline, arbitration, PELRB, unemployment and the like. I also write legislation and administrative rules and policy, attend hearings at the legislature and frequently testify. I teach new employees and give advice to the Commissioner and executive staff on a myriad of issues affecting DOC.”
Recently, however, Vinson’s job with the Department of Corrections was transferred to the Attorney General’s Office. And while he maintains an office at both sites, his work has shifted slightly.
“I’ll still be doing a lot of the things that I do now,” he says, “as well as some new items that the Attorney General’s Office needs help with.”
Vinson’s position was placed with the Attorney General because, according to him, 40 percent of the civil bureau is Corrections Law. This allows him to be the cool voice of reason and experience in an office where many have little inside training in corrections. “Most of what I’ll be doing is appellate litigation and trial litigation,” he says.
Vinson has covered a lot of ground in his 40-year career, but he still has much to do. Though eligible for retirement, he says he will continue doing his job until it stops being interesting, which for him, is a long way off.
“I welcome the new challenges of this job. I’m not even thinking about retirement,” he says. “I just enjoy the practice of law and the state of New Hampshire too much to give it up.”