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Bar News - October 19, 2007

Judge Shortage Keeping People’s Lives on Hold


This article, published in the Concord Monitor, September 30, 2007 and reprinted with permission, appeared before Governor Lynch made his nominations. (See page one.)


People seeking redress from the state’s superior courts are like airline passengers trapped on a runway for what feels like an eternity while crews wait for clearance to fly. The delays, however, are far longer and far more serious. They compromise the ability to hold timely trials, waste the time and money of innumerable people, keep the lives of litigants on hold for months or years and in some cases put innocent people at risk of harm.


One New Hampshire rape victim, who was prepared for what would be an excruciating ordeal and ready to get on with her life, was told just days before the trial that her case would not be heard for three more months. In another case, a state petition to remove a juvenile from the custody of his parents suffered a long delay that could have proved dangerous.


Criminal cases take precedence in superior courts, particularly those that involve someone who is incarcerated. Civil matters go to the end of a line. Litigants can wait a year or more and be scheduled for trial multiple times only to be put off. In the meantime, their property dispute can’t be resolved, a business owed money it can’t collect can be forced to close, people injured in accidents and out of work are denied compensation and sometimes forced to settle for less than they deserve. Lives are kept in limbo.


The delays are caused by a shortage of judges. In Sullivan and Coos counties a judge sits every other month. Merrimack County is down one judge who’s presiding over a murder trial in Cheshire County. Had Judge Carol Conboy not canceled a planned vacation, no cases would have been heard in Merrimack Superior Court that week.


The judge shortage is due in part to retirements and the slow confirmation of replacements by the governor and Executive Council, but mostly to the Legislature’s refusal to pay for as many superior court judges as a growing population and more litigious society needs.


Three of the 22 superior court judgeships will be vacant by next month, and several more justices are close to retirement. The names of potential replacements have been submitted to Gov. John Lynch, but once they’re confirmed they’ll have to go through six weeks of training. Then the cramped court system will have to find a place to put them. Courtrooms are also in short supply.


When the family courts were created a few years ago to handle marital cases, the number of superior court judges was cut from 29 to 22. The savings, which with benefits come to about $170,000 per year per judge, were used to fund the family division, which has not yet expanded into every county. That cut was too deep.


The right to a thoughtful, fair and speedy trial is fundamental. But particularly in civil cases timely, let alone speedy, trials, are often out of the question.


Some lawyers believe that justice is being compromised by the long delays, the rushed schedule when cases are heard, and the lack of time for harried judges to deliberate and write their opinions.


If true, that’s frightening. Faith in the fairness of justice is a societal foundation stone.


When the National Center for State Courts took a look at New Hampshire’s population and caseload, it said that the state needed 25 superior court judges. Lawmakers, however, authorized just 22 and later rejected the court’s request to hire two more judges. The judicial system will doubtless renew its request. Next time, lawmakers should say yes.


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