Bar News - July 16, 2014
Reluctant Exit for Judge McHugh
By: Kristen Senz
An umpire who calls a strike doesn’t second-guess himself.
After 36 years on the bench, Judge Kenneth McHugh is waiting until the day of his 70th birthday to retire, so that he can preside over cases until the last possible moment. “There’s some symmetry to that,” he says.
Neither does Judge Kenneth McHugh, who will officially retire July 18 – his 70th birthday – after 36 years on the bench. A die-hard sports fan with an aversion to modern technology, McHugh is a first-generation lawyer whose civil law prowess and straightforward style have earned him a reputation as a dedicated and pragmatic judge.
“I am a renegade. I’m a dinosaur. I’m my own person. Never really looked up to or followed anybody,” he said during a recent interview in his chambers, which doubles as a display space for his collection of New York Giants memorabilia.
“I do live and die with them,” he says of his team. McHugh’s favorite sport is football, but he regularly plays softball and some pick-up basketball games. The only sport he doesn’t like? “I do not golf,” he says, raising both his hands. “I have no interest in that. It’s far too calm a game for me.”
There’s no computer on McHugh’s desk. He has never used one – “I just never had the need for it” – and he doesn’t own a cell phone. Instead, he dictates decisions and orders into a voice recorder that uses mini cassette tapes, and courthouse staffers type them up. McHugh, who admits he may take a beginner computer class post-retirement, says he can hardly fathom Facebook, a strange world where people share photographs of what they ate for breakfast.
“I’m still fascinated by why people think that’s worth knowing,” he says. “I’m not interested in the little minutia of what goes on.”
But he is interested in people. McHugh is a people person. He likes solving problems and making a difference in people’s lives. And he misses the days when law practice was conducted mostly verbally, when trust and personality trumped email threads and letterhead.
McHugh, a Manchester native, practiced with Emile Bussiere before being sworn in as a Hooksett District Court judge in 1976.He has no lawyers in his family and says he chose law as a profession through a process of elimination. “I didn’t like blood, so I didn’t want to be a doctor. I wasn’t really good in math, so I didn’t want to be an accountant, but I could always talk, and once I got into the law, I really liked it.”
Having practiced civil law doing general plaintiff’s work when he was a lawyer, McHugh tends to prefer presiding over civil cases, and his superior court docket has reflected that. He digs deeply into every case and has developed his own style and strategies that help him ascertain the important issues and find the best solutions. He’s also known to pen his own rulings.
“I have law clerks, but I don’t use them,” he says. “Unless it’s an ultra-complex case involving law from other states, I generally write my own orders.”
He also makes his own schedule, something that affords his deputy clerk, Cindy Perrault, more time to focus on other duties.
“He likes to do his own scheduling and he’s very detailed about it, and a lot of other judges aren’t like that,” Perreault says, adding: “Most people think the civil bar will miss him the most, and they probably will, because when they go in to see Judge McHugh they get a reality check, but a lot of the criminal bar has said the same thing.”
Civil lawyers who practice in Rockingham County know McHugh has a penchant for meeting with parties in chambers to discuss sensitive legal issues. He does this to remove the adversarial emotions that are inherent to the courtroom environment. “That, to me, is the wisest thing to do,” McHugh says. “If you can break that initial wall of ‘I hate you, you hate me,’ then you have a better chance of reaching a more amicable resolution.”
Does he worry that this practice could lead to the appearance of bias? “It is a fine line, and a lot of people can’t do it, but I’ve had success dealing with people, so they don’t think I’m biased,” he says. “There’s a handful of lawyers I won’t invite back here, because I’ve been bitten before... but that doesn’t happen a lot.”
Among his colleagues, McHugh is highly regarded for both his skills as a judge and his friendly demeanor, which complements rather than competes with his judicial temperament. And he’s a hard worker. NH Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau says McHugh does the work of one and a half judges, often staying at the courthouse until late in the evening.
“He’s the kind of judge that I think all sides respect, because he does the right thing. He listens to all sides and he doesn’t let the sentiment of the day sway him,” Nadeau said, adding that he has been a trusted and positive influence for her over the years. “He’s somebody that I could go to with any question and talk it out with him... I always trusted his instincts and insights, and he treated me as an equal colleague from the first day I was on the bench, which I always respected.”
McHugh acknowledges that he has made some decisions that turned out to be wrong. And he’s been reversed by the NH Supreme Court on several occasions, but he never wonders if he should have made a different call.
He remembers a case 20 years ago in which a man was charged with threatening his wife and trashing his house. The man appeared in McHugh’s court for a bail hearing, claiming he had steady employment, roots in the area and planned to get an attorney. The state argued for high bail, but McHugh let him out. Immediately upon his release, the man bought a gun and killed himself.
“I’ve never blamed myself, you know what I mean? In that snapshot, had I had to do it again, I’d have made the same decision,” he said. “In my mind, whether he would’ve gotten out a week or a month or a year later, the issues that he had probably would’ve resulted in the same ending.”
“The call that you make is part of what you do,” McHugh continues. “When it’s made, it’s thorough, it’s lawful and I’ll live with it, and yeah, I’ve been wrong. The pitch comes over the plate and you say, ‘strike.’ You have to make the call.”
Married with four sons, McHugh said his retirement plans include buying a part-time place in Florida, but he hopes to continue presiding over cases in New Hampshire as a judicial referee. He said he doubts he would ever tire of being a judge, because the feeling that he is having a significant impact on people’s lives, even after all these years, remains satisfying.
“That’s always been the thing that kinda drives me,” he said. “These aren’t just names on a piece of paper. These are real people with real problems.”
While McHugh might have once jumped at the chance to be sports announcer or the general manager of a football team, he genuinely loves being a judge, so much that he wishes he didn’t have to retire this month.
“I hate it,” he says of being forced by statute to retire at age 70. “And the tragedy of it is, this age of 70 was picked by the Founding Fathers in 1776, and at that time, 70 was our 90 now... It would make sense to move that age up at least five or 10 years.”
“But I’m not bitter,” he adds. “It’s another stage of your life, and you slide into it.”