Bar News - February 22, 2008
Judge Burling Reluctantly Ends Pioneering Career on the Bench
By: Dan Wise
Judge Jean Burling (far right) served on every level of the state courts, including several times as a substitute justice on the NH Supreme Court. She is pictured here with (left to right) Superior Court Associate Justice Gillian Abramson, Supreme Court justices James Duggan and Linda Dalianis (chief justice of this substitute panel), and retired Superior Court Justice Walter Murphy.
Although she is looking forward to some aspects of her retirement from the bench after almost 30 years as a judge, the Hon. Jean Burling says she loved being a judge and found it difficult to leave.
Judge Burling, 61, was admitted to practice in 1973 after obtaining a law degree from Boston University School of Law. According to the NH Women’s Bar Association’s compilation of the first 100 women admitted in NH, Burling was the 47th. She began as a solo lawyer in Plainfield, NH.
In 1979, Hugh Gallen, a Democrat, was elected governor; one of his campaign promises was that he would appoint women to higher office. When a district court judgeship opened up, Burling says, Gov. Gallen consulted leaders of the legal community, including the Bar Association, to find a suitable candidate. Burling says that Gallen was told that there were no women qualified to be judges. However, former Senator Harry Spanos and Jean Hennessey of Hanover, both of whom advised Gov. Gallen on appointments, recommended Burling.
“It was not something I sought, but I was interested,” Burling says. She was interviewed by the Bar Association’s board before she was nominated. “They asked me since I was married, how would I be able to handle the job, what about if we had children – all sorts of questions that are no longer acceptable today. “
“In those days, often women lawyers were not treated very well. Since there were not many women out there, ignorance was likely the reason. I suffered various slights. But when I was appointed, suddenly the tables were turned. There was a certain irony in that.”
Burling went on to spend 20 years in the district court, including the last two years also serving in the family division in Lebanon. She also pitched in for a year as acting judge of probate court in Sullivan County...
In 1999, she was appointed by Gov. Shaheen to the Superior Court. “I had wanted to do that for a very long time. Serving on the trial court was very stimulating and I really loved what I did.
“I went to Grafton County and presided over the court where years before I had practiced law before judges Batchelder and Johnson [who both went on to serve on the NH Supreme Court]. It felt somewhat familiar, Burling recalled.
However, Judge Burling began to develop a problem with persistent and severe migraine headaches. She has tried a number of treatments and regimens, but has met with only limited success. Last year, she took a two-month leave to concentrate on trying to overcome the painful attacks, which occur on a daily basis, and returned to the bench“ “I accommodated myself to it as best I could,” she said, but eventually she realized she could not overcome it. “The citizens of NH deserve 100 percent of my attention and ability, and I wasn’t able to give it. But the decision to leave was very difficult for me.”
As for her plans as a “civilian,” Burling said her first priority is to get well and to continue to investigate various approaches to dealing with migraine pain. She said that as people have found out about her condition, she has received many ideas and suggestions for which she is thankful.
In addition, she will have the flexibility to travel and to become more involved in the political activities of her husband, NH State Senator Peter Burling (also a Bar member.) “One of the few downsides of my judicial career is that I have never been able to participate in my husband’s political life. We kept our worlds separate for 28 years. I am looking forward to sharing that part of his life with him.”
Burling, who in 2004 received the Marilla Ricker Achievement Award from the NH Women’s Bar Association (along with attorney Emily Rice) is encouraged by the progress women in the profession have made, but sees room for improvement.
“I look around and I am so impressed and proud of the many women who have become leading attorneys in their fields – women who have been able to dedicate the amount of time necessary to become a leading light in their area and still manage their family commitments.”
Women have proven themselves – as attorneys and as judges. But she still feels that many worthy female candidates are not being considered for judgeships because of a too-narrow concept of what it takes to be qualified for the bench.
“Consideration should not be limited to only those attorneys who are the lead partner in the litigation department of a firm,” said Burling. “There are many skills and traits, including court experience, that are necessary to be a good judge – demeanor, judgment, intelligence, compassion and life experience. I don’t believe that the net is being flung wide enough. There are many different types of lawyers, all of whom bring something different and valuable to the bench.”
Given their percentages of the overall population, and their share of the legal profession, Burling says she is disappointed that there are not more women on the bench or in other positions of judicial leadership. In the ranks of the NH state courts, women comprise: one of five Supreme Court justices; six of the current 21 superior court justices; one of 10 probate court judges; and nine of the 80 district court and family division judges. “I don’t think we have progressed that much at all. In this respect, I think New Hampshire is not a leader in our country.”