Bar News - July 4, 2008
Judge Sullivan Says Goodbye after 27 Years
By: Beverly Rorick
Judge Michael F. Sullivan in his office at the district court.
Michael F. Sullivan is taking off his judge’s robes and donning his golf shoes, concluding a 27-year career at Concord’s District Court. He hopes to get in some kayaking, travel to Italy with his wife Paula – and improve that golf score.
"It’s been an honor to be a judge here at the District Court," said Sullivan. "It’s a great job – very fulfilling – and I’m sad to leave."
He spoke feelingly of the life of a judge, saying it’s exhausting work, even though satisfying. "Not just the day-to-day appearances in court, but the study and research, the middle of the night calls for warrants or domestic violence restraining orders – or to deal with some out-of-control juvenile that must be detained…."
Judges wish they had more time to spend on cases, said Sullivan, remarking on the court’s increasingly crowded docket. "You need a high degree of energy to be a judge," he went on. "We often work nights and weekends – and it takes its toll."
Sullivan, who graduated from Suffolk University in 1974 and joined the Mass. Bar that same year, became a NH Bar member in 1977. He worked as general counsel to the Committees of the NH House of Representatives and was also Executive Director of the State Crime Commission until Gov. Gallen appointed him to the judgeship in 1981.
Raised in an Irish-Catholic family, Sullivan developed a strong work ethic very early in life. His grandmother was widowed in her 20’s and raised her three daughters alone. "And my dad was a great example to me," Sullivan said. "He worked hard. We didn’t have a lot of money, but he was always so patient, so kind and a very strong influence for good in my life."
Sullivan has four siblings (and many cousins) and still keeps in touch with them – and with his mom. His father passed away some years ago.
In addition to parents who shaped his values, Sullivan says that he was greatly influenced by the nuns at his Catholic high school. "They believed in hard work and no nonsense," he said.
"Back then, many Irish-Catholic boys grew up to became policemen, go into politics or some kind of civic work – or to become priests….I was the first person in my family to become a lawyer."
A front-row seat
Sullivan says that one of the greatest dangers for a judge is that he/she may become hardened or cynical or develop a negative outlook. In his case, his upbringing helped to give him balance. "I have a front-row seat to society and all its problems," he said. "Domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, lack of education, mental illness, abused and neglected kids – you name it, judges deal with it all."
In addition, as presiding judge of the juvenile drug court in Concord, he has dealt with all kinds of substance abuse problems – and many related problems, too. Still, he says that his most satisfying work, both before and after becoming a judge, has been with the rehabilitation of young people.
Another area of great concern to Sullivan is what he calls "some of the most heart-breaking cases," those involving mental illness; especially devastating are the ones in which parents must cope with adult children who are schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill.
He also cited the growing number of cases in which grandparents are raising their grandchildren because the parents are gone or incarcerated or not able to raise their kids for some other reason "It’s very hard," he said. "I try to be as encouraging as I can – I tell the grandparents whenever possible what a great job they’re doing."
In recent years, the influx of people from other cultures has presented a constant challenge, also. "Not only do they not always understand the language, but the court procedures are all different, too," he said.
Many such people leave behind positions of wealth and influence. "One case I had involved a former African judge now working as a custodian – a fine man who came before me because his son was in trouble," Sullivan said. "It’s becoming more and more important for us judges to try to understand something of other cultures, other laws."
Being heard is important
"I think that most times people can accept not winning if they feel the judge listens to them," said Sullivan. He believes that people need to know they are being heard by the court.
"And now 75-80 percent of those who come to court cannot afford lawyers and must act pro se. Most don’t really understand the system or how to present their cases. Those people have to be treated with patience and understanding, too," he said.
Being a judge is something of a monastic existence, continues Sullivan. "We are often cut off from relationships with other people because we must never give even the appearance of impropriety….We must always be perceived as fair and impartial – and sometimes that calls for a certain distance…."
Sullivan believes that’s why it’s so important for judges to have outside interests, outside friends. "I just love paddling along in my kayak," he says, "and my retirement will give me a chance to see more of my friends, too." And to study. Sullivan loves to read and says retirement will give him time to take some courses in various subjects he’s interested in, but doesn’t have the time for now.
He says that being a judge would be almost impossible without the "unseen support" of clerks and other court personnel. Their importance to the success of the judiciary cannot be overstated, he believes. "They help make the system work. If a judge is ill-prepared or disorganized, that can reflect on the whole justice system," he said.
New Hampshire "an oasis"
Sullivan, who used to represent the New England states at the American Bar Association, considers New Hampshire "an oasis." He says, "Things work here."
It’s judges like Michael J. Sullivan who make them work – and he’ll be greatly missed by all those who have worked with him at Concord District Court.
Advice to young lawyers
To young lawyers, Sullivan says: "Your reputation is everything….No cause or client is worth risking it.
"Judges talk to one another. If you come to court unprepared, if you are unfair or lack candor or civility, word gets around among the judges. So guard your reputation – it’s your greatest asset."