Bar News - December 21, 2016
A Conversation with the Chief
By: Kristen Senz
From budget priorities to making her mark, Chief Justice Dalianis opens up
NH Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis speaks with Bar News last month on a variety of topics.
NH Judicial Branch officials are taming their budgetary wish lists in light of unexpected cost drivers related to federal laws and regulations, NH Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis told Bar News in a wide-ranging interview last month.
New federal overtime rules, which would force employers to reclassify exempt employees earning less than $47,476 as hourly or increase their salaries to meet the new threshold, would have affected about 200 administrative employees within the Judicial Branch, Dalianis said. However, a federal court judge in Texas issued an injunction at the end of November, delaying indefinitely the US Department of Labor rules, which had been scheduled to take effect Dec. 1.
Chris Keating, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said in early December that although President-elect Donald Trump’s administration could roll back the DOL regulation once he takes office, the Judicial Branch must continue to consider its alternatives under the proposed rules.
“There was some uncertainty about the path forward with the new overtime regulations issued by the Department of Labor, and I think this change in circumstances with the injunction has only injected more uncertainty into what’s to come,” Keating said.
Additionally, newly implemented Affordable Care Act regulations will affect the cost of benefits for Judicial Branch employees, Dalianis said.
Against that budgetary backdrop, the Judicial Branch has limited its proposals for new funding mainly to increased judicial staffing and a capital request of $1 million to continue work on the NH e-Court Project, which seeks to move all case types to the court’s electronic filing system over the next three years.
“Our number one priority is additional judges,” said Dalianis. “We have had and will continue to have an extraordinary number of retirements, and we’ve reached a point particularly in the Family Division of the Circuit Court, at which we will fall behind if we don’t get additional judges, so that’s number one.”
Keating said the Judicial Branch proposes to convert three vacant marital master positions into full-time Circuit Court judges at an added cost of $440,000 per year for the next biennium. The Court also proposes adding a new full-time Superior Court judicial position at a cost of $300,000 per year.
The Judicial Branch also has included in its proposed budget a request for about $100,000 for a new weighted caseload study – an analysis that creates a framework for allocating judicial resources to the various court locations and divisions.
The study, which was last conducted in 2003, was originally scheduled for an update in 2008, “but it seemed to us that the impact of the changes that will be brought by the e-Court Project needed to be a little bit more discernible than they were five years ago,” said Dalianis, explaining that as the Court meets promised returns on investment for electronically filed case types, its staffing needs change. “We put the weighted caseload item into the budget, whether it stays there or not remains to be seen, either because the Legislature doesn’t want to fund it or because we think it’s premature.”
Access to Justice
Asked about the recent work of the NH Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, Dalianis said she’s confident the group can make some progress in closing the gap between available and affordable civil legal services and the thousands of New Hampshire residents who could benefit from having a lawyer but can’t afford one.
The commission recently developed a list of 24 initiatives aimed at increasing access to the court system and legal services for New Hampshire citizens. But the commission does not have a budget and has an agreement with the Court not to seek funds from the state or federal legislatures. A grant proposal by the commission to the National Center for State Courts was recently rejected.
“I don’t know what they’ll be able to accomplish,” Dalianis said. “A great deal, I expect, because they’re enthusiastic and devoted to the cause, and I have great optimism that it will continue to yield good results for folks who could use legal help and have a hard time getting it. I continue to think, though, that the biggest access to justice factor in this state for decades to come will be the completion of the e-Court Project.”
For more information about the NH Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission and the initiatives, visit courts.state.nh.us/access/.
Commission on the NH Bar
Association in the 21st Century
In July, the NH Supreme Court issued an order that established the Commission on the NH Bar Association in the 21st Century. A group of attorneys – most of whom work in private practice – were convened to ensure “efficient delivery of services to the members of the Association” and to make certain “that the Bar Association is assisting and serving the public and the administration of justice.”
Asked what prompted the effort, Dalianis said it fits with the forward-looking culture the Court has worked to cultivate over the past few years. “We just felt that, you know what, it has been a mandatory bar association for 40-some years, this is a new century, we need a new project, what shall we look at next? And that thought bubbled up around the table, and we decided that it was a good idea to just take a look.”
The Court recently approved a request by the commission to the extend the deadline for its report to June 2017. NH Bar Association staff members have met with the commission and continue to fulfill requests for budgetary and other information about association operations. NHBA Executive Director Jeannine McCoy has said the commission process offers an opportunity for the association to inform members, the Court and the public about the organization’s work, including the services and benefits it provides to members.
Women in the Legal Profession
In 2017, New Hampshire’s legal community will come together to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first woman to be admitted to the state bar. Dalianis, who was the 50th woman admitted to the bar and the first to be appointed as a Superior Court judge, reflected on her trailblazing status as part of the mark she has made on the state’s justice system.
“Those of us who began 45 or 50 years ago must have done a credible enough job that it made things easier for those who came later,” she said. “We were good enough that we didn’t hurt the prospects of others.”
Now, the number of women in the bar and in law school is roughly equal to the number of men. Attorneys are no longer identified by gender, Dalianis said, and that’s a sign that great progress has been made.
“To me, in New Hampshire at least, it’s no longer an issue. When I became a lawyer, you were a woman lawyer, now you’re just a lawyer, and nobody thinks twice about whether you’re a woman or a man anymore. I think that while there may be pockets of resistance of which I’m unaware, I think the playing field has really leveled out here, and at least for the legal profession in this state, while gender may continue to be an issue in some respects, it’s very much not the issue it was 100 years ago,” she said.
The Future of Law
From her position on the Supreme Court, Dalianis has helped New Hampshire become a national leader in the legal field in a variety of ways. The Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, which has received national attention as a model for the future of legal education, was her idea. She encouraged the collaboration that has made the program a success and its graduates sought after by hiring managers for their “practice-ready” skills.
She also led New Hampshire to become the 13th state to adopt the Uniform Bar Exam and the first in New England. Now, 26 states have adopted the UBE, a tipping point she expects will lead to new opportunities and efficiencies.
“I think we will begin to see, since it will be essentially a national bar exam… regionalization of bar admissions and other things that each state carries out now, and probably economies of scale could be reached in some fashion,” she said.
But is regionalization necessarily a good thing for the legal profession?
“I think it’s a bad thing that there are too many lawyers chasing too few clients,” Dalianis said. “But if you have more opportunities to get more clients in more places because you have credentials that will allow you to do that, then you, individual lawyer, might have a better chance at a successful career.”
The NH e-Court Project
Over the next year, the Court plans to roll out electronic filing for estate cases and domestic violence/stalking petitions. Parties in cases will also have remote access to case documents online.
A delay in bringing Superior Court civil cases into the electronic filing environment was related to difficulties with introducing software that judges could use to issue rulings directly into the electronic case record from the bench. Dalianis said the Court is closing in on a solution to those issues as staff work with the Judicial Branch technology vendor to upgrade its existing product.
“I think we should have that issue resolved before 2017 is over, and we would expect our next case type after domestic violence to be superior court civil,” she said.
During the interview with Bar News, the chief justice also talked about effective advocacy before the NH Supreme Court and her preference for plain, concise writing in briefs. That segment is available on the NH Bar Association’s YouTube channel. Visit www.youtube.com/NHBAR for this and other recent NHBA videos.