Bar News - March 18, 2015
Retiring Clerks Reflect on the Role of ‘Ringmaster’
By: Carol Robidoux
This undated NH Bar Association archive photo shows Safford in the early days.
A changing of the guard in the clerks’ offices is taking place just as the Superior Court is on the verge of a new era with the NH e-Court Project preparing to convert its civil filings to a paperless process later this year.
Ahead of that transition, longtime clerks in two of the state’s busiest courts, John Safford, clerk for Hillsborough County North, and William McGraw, at Merrimack County, have announced their retirements.
Safford officially stepped down Jan. 30 after serving 36 years with the court system. Mike Scanlon (related article), longtime deputy clerk in Nashua, has accepted the Hillsborough County clerk position. McGraw, who has served in Merrimack County for the past 25 years, and in the court system for 37, retires in April, with Tracy Uhrin (related article), now at the US District Court, coming in as his successor.
In the late 1970s, both Safford and McGraw joined the court system during a period that was similarly rife with change. Both now say the timing is right to turn over the reins to new clerks, to usher in the e-Court transition.
NH Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau says that the changes and promise of e-Court make this an especially challenging and invigorating time for the courts. She says the key to a smooth transition will be the diligence of the system’s eight court clerks.
“We’ve been working on the transition for several years, and what we’re discovering is that there aren’t any states endeavoring to accomplish the breadth of changes we’re doing here,” says Nadeau. “Our clerks need to be a catalyst for their staff, and be change agents and leaders of supervised guidance when it comes to how to get from point A to B in a brand new system.”
Although the impending changes were a factor in Safford’s decision to retire, the opportunity to start a new chapter of his life was the main reason he chose to leave the job.
“My decision to retire was based on a combination of things – the realization that 36 years is a long career, and that with all the changes afoot, from the call center and a centralized jury function, to the paperless system – I thought it was a good opportunity for new blood to come in and oversee the new processes,” says Safford. “And the real driving force was to retire while I was still healthy enough to enjoy retirement.”
Safford, 66, was a newly minted attorney who spent four years in private practice in Keene when the opportunity arose in 1978 for a clerk’s position in Cheshire County Court.
“I didn’t get that job, but a few months later, they were looking for someone in Manchester to replace Carl Randall, who was Superior Court clerk,” says Safford. After a brief stint in Manchester, and then four years in Concord, Safford returned to Manchester, where he remained for the duration of his career.
McGraw says his planned retirement from Merrimack County Court, originally set for early March, has been pushed back to April 30, due to some administrative issues. One advantage to that change is he will have about a month to work closely with his replacement, Uhrin, who is moving over from the US District Court in Concord.
“Without the delay, Tracy’s first day would’ve been my last, and while my deputy clerk is very capable, I think it will only help the court to have this period of time to make the transition that much smoother,” says McGraw.
“To be honest, I have no problem staying on another month. I wake up every day delighted to come here. I feel very blessed and honored to be able to be entrusted with the operation of the court for the people of New Hampshire,” he says.
The late 1970s and early 1980s was a similar period of flux for the NH court system, says McGraw, 68. Several clerks were preparing for retirement. He and Safford were among a group of young clerks hired by Superior Court Chief Justice Richard Dunfey. Dunfey was looking for the next generation of “career clerks” who felt their calling was to court administration.
“Bill and I, along with others like Marshall Buttrick, Don Goodnow and Jim Starr, all came in around the same time, for much the same reasons – we had young families, and the clerk position looked like a job that suited my interests,” says Safford. “It’s not for everyone. Stepping out of private practice means you’re not dealing with clients anymore, and there are pluses and minuses to that. But at the time, it seemed like a good opportunity. I went into thinking I’d see where it takes me; 36 years later, I’m retiring, so I guess it suited me.”
McGraw and Safford worked together for a time in Manchester – McGraw served as Safford’s deputy clerk.
“John was wonderful to work for. I maintain that the biggest difference between clerks and deputy clerks is that the deputy clerk is the best job – you get to do the fun and tactical stuff, like dealing with counsel, with the juries and judges. As clerk, you’re tasked with more of the administrative duties – budget, personnel. Not necessarily the most fun aspects of the job, but demanding. John taught me how to manage that, and I’ve drawn on that expertise many times over the course of my time in Merrimack County,” says McGraw.
McGraw says New Hampshire’s e-Court is the right change at the right time.
“It’s worked well for the federal court for years. Any change of that magnitude is difficult, but it’s definitely where we should be headed. Yes, it’s costly initially, but the benefits outweigh the detriments,” he says.
Some of the other recent changes within the court system he could do without, says McGraw.
“I’ve never been a big fan of the call center. I think it demeans people who have to play telephone tag to get to who they want to speak with. We have to do whatever it takes to keep the court accessible,” says McGraw.
Safford says he most appreciated the role and responsibility of being the liaison between lawyers and superior court judges, maintaining the policies and procedures that keep things running smoothly.
“We dealt face-to-face with judges and were often conduits – lawyers can’t just chat with the judge about a pending case, and so often they’d ask us for guidance on how to approach something. That dialogue and the elements of personnel management involved certainly makes for a daily challenge, but it has certainly been a rewarding one,” says Safford.
He says one of the biggest changes he worked through was when Hillsborough Superior Court was relocated to Nashua for two years while that building was refurbished.
“I was involved in the committee that dealt with layout and design, and it was ultimately helpful to have somebody with my perspective. I advocated for a couple of small things – access from the back of the court to the lobby, so if we needed to track someone down we could, and the configuration of restrooms so that when a jury panel comes in, we didn’t have 120 people and only two restrooms,” says Safford. “We ended up with six restrooms, which on some level is a little thing, but that also sort of summarizes the job of a clerk; we live in the details.”
Nadeau says what Safford and McGraw demonstrated over their combined decades of service is the art of relationship-building.
“They will both be missed for their amazing strengths, particularly when it comes to building relationships with community leaders, personnel and the community in general,” says Nadeau. “It’s true, our clerks are the face of our court system, and it takes a special skill set to do the job well. Both John and Bill have done that with a lot of grace and balance. I would say it has been an art form.”
McGraw says looking back on the evolution of his duties over the years, he still misses one of the most joyful tasks, the swearing-in of new citizens. However, he won’t miss things like the weight of reading a sentence to someone facing life in prison without parole.
“If I had to sum it up, I’d say as a clerk of the court, you’re less of a diplomat and more of a ringmaster,” says McGraw, who has lots of plans in the wings – from traveling the world and reviving his interest in restoration of classic British sports cars, to relishing all the time he can with his five grandchildren.
Safford leaves with one particular regret – that he didn’t keep a journal.
“If I had, I could probably write for television or something. So many things happened that were simply bizarre, crazy circumstances which, in hindsight, are hard to believe even happened,” Safford says. “Life in the courtroom is like having a front-row seat for the longest-running soap opera – and that isn’t to minimize the real pain and suffering that goes on in people’s lives, too often today related to addiction issues.”
As he turns the page on his career, there will now be more time for his children and grandchildren, which is precious. But he’s taking the long view, still piecing together what retirement will look like in the big picture.
“You plan all your life for the time when you can retire and do anything you want, whenever you want. Now I’ve arrived. I enjoy traveling and hope to do more of that – I’d like to go to South Africa for a safari,” says Safford. “I don’t think any of us wants to die in the office, at least before we have a chance at doing those things in life we’d imagined ourselves doing. For me, it means no more waiting for tomorrow to do those things.”