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Bar News - January 14, 2011


NH Courts in 2011: A New Chief Justice, Fewer Judges, More Delays

By:

Chief Justice Dalianis
A Role Model for Female Attorneys

New Chief Justice of the NH Supreme Court, Linda Stewart Dalianis, took the oath of office administered by Gov. John Lynch on Dec. 15, 2010 and became the first female Chief Justice of the state’s highest court. This is not the only first for Chief Justice Dalianis.

Among the supporters in the audience, were dozens of students from the Villa Augustina School in Goffstown, NH, where Justice Dalianis attended high school.

"When I look out on these students...I remember that, when I was a student there a long time ago, I believed there were no limits on what I could do," Dalianis said. "I hope that you believe that too – anything is possible."

That belief is important for a woman who has come so far in the legal profession at a time when such things were considered anything but possible.

In his introduction, Supreme Court Associate Justice James Duggan listed many firsts for females in the state.

In 1890, the Supreme Court allowed women to join the Bar. In 1917, the first female attorney in the state began her career. In 1980 the first woman was appointed to the trial court. In 2000, the first woman was appointed as Chief Judge of the Superior Court. Also in 2000, the first woman was appointed to the Supreme Court bench, and in 2010, the first female was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Of the six major steps forward that Duggan listed from the past 100 years, the last four were taken by Chief Justice Dalianis herself. Consequently, in 2008, she received the NH Women’s Bar Association’s (NHWBA) Woman Trailblazer in the Law Award.

"[She] was selected for many reasons in light of her long list of professional achievements including, but certainly not limited to, the trails she has blazed for women in the New Hampshire Judiciary," said Holly Haines, president of the NHWBA.

When still a law student, Dalianis started working as a secretary for Sullivan & Worcester in Boston, Mass. It wasn’t long, however, that an attorney at the firm, Robert Bleakney, recognized talent in her and promoted her to law clerk. Bleakney was in the audience at Chief Justice Dalianis’ swearing-in.

After joining the Bar as only the 50th female attorney in the state, Dalianis was given her first chance at practicing law when she was hired by Joseph Kerrigan – who was also in attendance - of Hamblett & Kerrigan in Nashua, thanks in large part, she says, to that other first chance from Robert Bleakney.

"I believe I owe my career to these extraordinary men, both willing to give an opportunity to a young woman at a time when the phrase ‘woman lawyer’ was something of an oxymoron," she said.

Over the course of her career, Dalianis proved her first supporters correct and today has become a role model for other female attorneys who hope to achieve similar goals.

"Justice Dalianis has been uniquely accessible to women attorneys to discuss her career and experiences as a woman in the law and how it affected her personal life choices throughout her career," said Haines. "She is an exemplary role model for all of us to follow in our professional lives."

It’s a bittersweet moment for the New Hampshire Judicial Branch. The Supreme Court is celebrating its first female Chief Justice (see sidebar) and a new associate justice just as court delays worsen throughout the system.

While the Supreme Court may be at full strength, the lower courts don’t share that fortune. Hillsborough South Superior Court may be especially hard-hit: New Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert J. Lynn sat two days a week in Nashua while serving as the Chief Justice of the superior court, while Justice Dalianis occasionally pitched in there, too. Justice Lynn will preside in Nashua on several occasions in the next few months to complete his cases there, but his absence will soon be felt.

Chief Justice Dalianis, in one of her first moves as Chief Justice, appointed Judge Kenneth R. McHugh as the temporary superior court chief justice, but it will be at least a couple of months before there is more help to fill existing superior court vacancies.

This fall, Gov. Lynch tasked the Judicial Selection Commission with presenting him a list of candidates to consider for the superior court, but it is not known when he will act or how many judges he will nominate.

The judicial branch’s budget situation is so dire that the lack of judges pales in comparison to the shortages of non-judicial personnel to administer the courts.

Currently, judicial branch vacancies include:

  • 5 vacant superior court positions. There are now 17 full-time judges on a court mandated for 22 positions.
  • 3 full-time vacancies in the district court
  • 1 vacancy on probate court and 1 open marital master position
  • 94 vacant full-time staff positions, of a total 632 full-time positions (up from 71 when Bar News last reported on these figures)

Innovations to be Unveiled

As a new legislature convenes and begins work on the next two-year state budget, the Judicial Branch will be putting forth some new ideas during that process. The Judicial Branch Innovation Commission, formed last spring, will soon present recommendations to restructure the family division and the probate and district courts, streamline administrative processes, and move toward adopting more efficient technologies. The Commission’s report is expected to be made public later this month. (Read more about recommendations.)

Changing of the Guard

In the meantime, new Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis is quickly adjusting to her new position as administrative head of the judicial branch.

She responded to questions from Bar News about the transition, her approach to her new responsibilities, and her goals for the coming year.

Bar News: What’s your initial message to the court system and the legal profession about how the court system will confront the budgetary challenges ahead this year?

As Chief Justice, my message is the same to our judges, marital masters and staff, to the legal profession and most importantly, to the public we serve. The judicial branch will confront the budget challenges straightforwardly, recognizing that the challenges across the full range of government will be substantial. We will make the best possible case for not further reducing our ability to meet the needs of the citizens for access to the courts.

Bar News: What’s been the most damaging – the non-judicial staffing shortages, judicial vacancies, furlough days, jury session suspensions? What is your evaluation of how effective the courts are at providing dispute resolution now? Can the system absorb more cutbacks?

All of the actions that we were compelled to take in FY 10-11 to reduce the judicial branch budget have impacted our ability to administer justice effectively. A good example is the fact that in FY 2011 the district court and family division cut 20 percent of their sessions from their schedule. In terms of how that affects the citizens we serve, that cut represents 2,500 court sessions during which the equivalent of 11 full-time judges would have been at work handling cases. We did not have the funds to support those court sessions. To the extent that we are able to reach the cases, we still – because we have an exceptional judiciary and staff who work harder than we have any reasonable right to expect – provide effective dispute resolution. I’m not sure that we can absorb any more cutbacks.

Bar News: How will your approach to the Chief Justice position differ from your predecessor’s?

I will approach the Chief Justice position in my usual, pragmatic way. As I said during my confirmation hearings, my nature is to analyze a task, determine what needs to be done and then follow that path to the goal. That has been my style during the 30 years that I have been a judge and that is the way I approached numerous difficult administrative assignments that I took on while also serving as a judge. I think that approach produces results and that is the course I will continue to take as Chief Justice.

Bar News: How do the challenges you currently face compare to challenges you’ve overcome in the past?

The challenges will be greater in terms of dwindling resources and increasing demands for court services. But what’s different is the way the judicial branch has chosen to deal with those challenges. When the Innovation Commission was established last March by my predecessor, John Broderick, he made it clear that we recognized that we could no longer maintain business as usual while hoping for more revenue each budget cycle. Those days are over. We needed to change and find ways to make better, more efficient use of our work force and resources in order to meet the demands of 21st Century court users.

This month, the Innovation Commission will present its report and recommendations to the Supreme Court. My colleagues and I expect the Commission’s work to be a catalyst for unprecedented change that, if given the needed support by the governor and legislature, will in the long run produce a more modern and efficient court system ready to meet the needs of the future

Bar News: Are there any major technological innovations lined up for immediate release that may relieve some of the burden on the caseload of the courts (i.e., e-filing)?

Yes, there are some major technological innovations, which the court would like to embrace, that would, over time, relieve some of the burden of case processing (the caseload is beyond our control); however, our ability to develop technological innovations depends upon resources which we do not now have, but hope to persuade the legislature are worth the investment.

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