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Bar News - May 18, 2012

NH Bar Foundation: Esther & Arthur Nighswander: Two Justice Champions

Arthur Nighswander, who some have called the greatest trial lawyer of his generation, was a civil rights champion reaching back to the McCarthy era when he was President of the New Hampshire Bar Association.

His wife Esther was a leader also, serving more than a decade in the NH legislature and active in a number of organizations and boards supporting education, and addressing women’s and children’s needs. She helped found Planned Parenthood in NH, and was long involved in the League of Women Voters and Child and Family Services, as well as serving on the Gilford School Board.

When the Bar Foundation set about to create a Justice Fund using a bequest from Arthur Nighswander, his eldest daughter Mildred wanted to make sure that the fund would bear the name of both.

"Both my mother and father were deeply involved in the community and worked to see constructive change. They were both activists, and leaders," said Larson, who is the oldest and only surviving child of the Nighswanders.

"Furthering the understanding of the positive role of government and the importance of citizen participation was important to both of my parents…I am hoping the fund will encourage projects that help people understand what their government does, what the structure of government is and how we can protect our civil liberties. Their gift will support projects that help citizens realize that they have a role in preserving the guarantees of civil liberties in our form of government."

Arthur Nighswander, who died in 2008, grew up in Gilford and after attending Dartmouth College and Columbia University Law School, returned to the Lakes Region and opened a law practice in Laconia in the midst of the Depression.

Elected president of the New Hampshire Bar in 1955, Nighswander stood against the political paranoia sweeping the country, defending a man jailed for refusing to provide information about alleged "communists" who attended meetings at a North Conway conference center. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court twice, but on the second appeal the high court upheld the conviction on contempt charges.

Nighswander was proud of his profession and throughout his career strove to uphold its integrity and advance its standards. During his tenure as Bar president, he set a precedent by filing a petition to suspend an attorney for misappropriating client funds in the days before the court created the Professional Conduct Committee. Several years later, Nighswander helped establish the Client Indemnity Fund, a voluntary program started before the Bar was unified that provided restitution to clients wronged by dishonest lawyers.

Nighswander, along with several other New Hampshire attorneys, sued the state of New Hampshire on behalf of 28 school districts in Jesseman v. New Hampshire, a precursor to the Claremont school-funding lawsuit.

He was also passionately dedicated to education and served as on the Laconia Board of Education. His daughter Mildred proudly recalls that it was her father, as school board chairman, who handed her her high school diploma.

In 1997, Nighswander, who had moved to the Kendal retirement community outside of Lebanon, left the Laconia law firm he had founded and approached David Bradley of Bradley, Stebbins, Harvey, Miller & Brooks of Hanover. With a resume in hand, Nighswander, then 89, asked for a job. He worked for Bradley’s firm for eight more years. He finally retired at age 97 and died at Kendal shortly after celebrating his 100th birthday.

Esther Nighswander shared Arthur’s passion for civic involvement, Mildred said. Esther Nighswander served in the NH House of Representatives for 14 years, mostly as a member of the Health & Human Services Committee. Barbara Zeckhausen, who served with her in the legislature, said Esther was an inspiration to many women. She quoted another veteran female legislator, Susan McLane, as saying: "Watching Esther operate in the legislature made me a feminist."

"They were both fearless fighters for civil rights," said her daughter, Mildred.

Esther Nighswander died in 1999.

If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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