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Bar News - March 19, 2010

Superior Court Retirements Remaking the Court

New Superior Court Judge Jackie Colburn, left, talks about the learning curve of a trial court judge with two Superior Court veterans – Judge Kathleen McGuire, who is retiring this year, and Justice David Souter, who served on the NH trial court from1978 to 1983.
New is the new norm for the Superior Court.

Eight justices have been on the bench three years or less, and four of the most experienced judges remaining on the superior court will be stepping down over the next few months.

Superior Court Judge William Groff, who turns 65 this summer, has announced plans to retire in August. Already announced retirements by Judges James Barry, Philip Mangones and Kathleen McGuire will deplete the Superior Court, which is already falling behind on its work due to numerous administrative vacancies plus furloughs that will close the courts for three days through June 2010 and significantly more days in FY 2011.

And given the state’s budget woes, the Governor may not be in a hurry to replace the departing judges. Once Groff retires this summer, the Superior Court will be down to 18 judges. That is three judges below the authorized size of the court, and far below the 25 judges recommended by an independent study of the weighted caseload of the Superior Court conducted two years ago.

Not to be overlooked are continuing vacancies – 9 on the district court, three of them full-time and one full-time judicial position vacant on the probate court.

However, the loss of experience on the superior court is notable. This year’s crop of retirements will remove decades of experience from the bench. Not that the newer judges were without relevant experience: since 2001, 11 judges have joined the bench. All were experienced lawyers and some were moving from appointments as district court judges or marital masters. All were appointed through merit-based judicial selection processes created by Governors Shaheen and Lynch. (Gov. Benson, who eschewed the Selection Commission approach, did not make any Superior Court appointments during his two-year tenure).

Some of the shortfall for judge scheduling has been made up by retired justices sitting as "senior justices" of the Superior Court. Currently, there are five recently retired justices on the senior judge list -- Arthur D. Brennan, Jean K. Burling, Bruce E. Mohl; Robert E. K. Morrill, and David B. Sullivan. These judges also are frequently tapped to chair screening panels for medical-malpractice cases.

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