By Tom Jarvis

Justice Hicks in his chambers in September 2023. Photo by Tom Jarvis

New Hampshire Supreme Court (NHSC) Senior Associate Justice Gary E. Hicks, a revered leader in the judiciary for more than 20 years, will retire on November 30. This is pursuant to the State Constitution, which requires justices to hang up their robes at the age of 70.

Justice Hicks was born in West Stewartstown and grew up in Colebrook, working at his father’s hardware store from the age of 12.

“The name of the store was Hicks Hardware. So, I had an ‘in’ there,” Justice Hicks says in jest. “But working there was one of the best educations I ever had. Looking back on it, helping people who would come into the store with problems was a precursor to what I do now.”

In 1970, as a student of Colebrook Academy, he attended the Advanced Studies Program at St. Paul’s School in Concord, where he met his wife of 48 years, Patricia Garrell.

After high school – with strong encouragement from his mother, who later became a deputy clerk of court – he attended Bucknell University and graduated with a degree in math in 1975.

“Patty then strongly suggested that I go to Boston University School of Law,” Justice Hicks recalls. “She found something about my talents and personality that she thought would work in the law. So, I went there.”

The two married on Thanksgiving break during his first year of law school, and during his final year, he clerked for NHSC Chief Justice Frank Rowe Kenison.

Upon graduating with his JD in 1978, he began working for the law firm of Wiggin and Nourie, where he practiced for 23 years as a commercial litigator for insurance, title, bank, and asbestos litigation. He also represented then-Governor Meldrim Thomson.

“I worked with Attorney [T. William] Bigelow on some of Mel Thomson’s crazy cases,” Justice Hicks says. “It was a lot of fun. He was a very interesting, odd guy, but a very nice, charming guy, too. But I always felt I was doing something useful for somebody [when I was a lawyer]. I enjoyed it. It took me around the country.”

Judge Ellen Joseph, who worked with Justice Hicks at Wiggin and Nourie when she graduated law school in 1992, says he was a highly respected litigator and a pleasure to work with as a new lawyer.

“He was very gracious and kind,” Judge Joseph says. “Being a new lawyer can be challenging and scary – particularly in a large firm with established lawyers – but he was very welcoming to me. He was very giving of his time, knowledge, and experience and really helped me understand the legal issues. He was very devoted to training new lawyers.”

In 2001, then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen nominated Justice Hicks as a Superior Court judge, where he rode the circuit until being primarily assigned to Hillsborough County Superior Court South in Nashua.

“It was so wonderful,” Justice Hicks says of becoming a judge. “There was some trepidation at first because it’s a daunting task. I knew a lot about civil law – everything from wrongfully cutting down trees to product liability and scientific evidence – but I didn’t know anything about criminal law. But at the end of the day, it was very rewarding. It was fascinating to learn. And I had a lot of good mentors.”

Justice Hicks speaking at the 50-Year Member Luncheon in June 2023. Photo by Rob Zielinski

Justice Hicks continues: “Back then, there was no digital information. So, the files would be two feet high. You and the clerk would haul them into court and just go to work. It was a great training ground – great experience. We had some very big cases there. One of them was unfortunately a very prominent murder case that was televised and made into a book.”

The case, State v. Sullivan, involved the murder of Jeanne Dominico in Nashua. Dominico was killed by her daughter, Nicole Kasinskas, and her boyfriend, Billy Sullivan, because she refused to let her daughter move in with her boyfriend. The case was written about in a book called Because You Loved Me by M. William Phelps, and later adapted into a television episode called “Live Free or Die” on the true crime show Wicked Attraction.

Judge Jacki Smith, who was Justice Hicks’ first law clerk when he joined the Superior Court in 2001, says he was “a pleasure to work for as a human being and a joy to be around.”

“He is very smart, funny, and gracious,” she says. “He’s a judge you can’t help but admire. He always wants to get things right. As his clerk, I was impressed with his compassion for human beings on both sides of the courtroom in the criminal process and with the dignity with which he treated everyone.”

Retired judge Jean Burling, who sat on the Superior Court with Justice Hicks, describes him as a brilliant and charming person.

“He is a remarkable jurist,” Judge Burling says. “When he was permanently assigned [to Nashua], I missed the collegial relationship we had. He’s just an eminently sensitive and caring man, and just an inventive, energetic, and dedicated jurist.”

In 2006, then-Governor John Lynch nominated Hicks to become a justice of the highest court in the state.

“When he [Lynch] called me on Monday morning and said I’d been selected, I could barely talk because by that time it was my life’s ambition,” Justice Hicks says. “By whatever fate or fortuity, it happened. The interview process was nerve  wracking. I think most judges would say the same thing. If you think you’re entitled to one of these positions, you shouldn’t be in one.”

Justice Hicks says that the justices draw the cases randomly and he remembers about three months into his tenure pulling a school funding case, which is still the last standing case on school funding in the state.

“Right out of the gate, you get a sense of gravity of what you’re doing,” he says. “But you get up for these cases. Sometimes they are impossible to decide but you must decide. And so, you work with your clerks and your colleagues to come up with the best answer you can give. That’s the rubric: You do whatever you have to do to get it right.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHSC only had four justices due to Chief Justice Robert Lynn’s mandatory retirement at 70 in 2019. Until Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald was appointed in March 2021, Justice Hicks served as the interim chief justice – which he says was “the honor of a lifetime.”

Justice Hicks is the president of the Daniel Webster Batchelder Inns of Court. He is also a current member of the Advisory Board of the Advanced Studies Program at St. Paul’s School and co-teaches a class in professionalism at several law schools.

He is also a past member of the board of trustees of the American Inns of Court from 2008 to 2012 and was the former chair of their leadership council, as well as a past chair of both the New Hampshire Judicial Council and the New Hampshire Institute of Art.

He has received several awards and honors throughout his career, including the 2021 Civil Justice Award from the New Hampshire Association for Justice, the 2012 Philip S. Hollman Gender Equality Award from the NHBA Gender Equality Committee, and the 1998 Distinguished Service President’s Award from the NHBA. He was also named life fellow of the American Bar Foundation in 2015 and was bestowed with an honorary Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2000 from the New Hampshire Institute of Art.

However, one of Justice Hicks’ proudest achievements was receiving the Frank Rowe Kenison Award from the New Hampshire Bar Foundation in 2023. He says Chief Justice Kenison was one of his first mentors and that throughout his career he has been mindful of the example he set by the eminent jurist.

Attorney Mary Beth Kula, who has been Justice Hicks’ law clerk for the entirety of his tenure at the Supreme Court and previously worked with him as an associate at Wiggin and Nourie, says he is a genuine person who is very receptive to his law clerks’ views.

“He has this ability to just cut through the noise and say, ‘This is the legal issue right here,’” Kula says. “And people often say their door is always open, but it really is true with him. He has served as a mentor to countless law clerks who have come through here – not just his own. He was the go-to for the term clerks. There are a lot of lawyers out there who owe a lot to him.”

Each year, Justice Hicks and his wife host law clerk reunions at their house, which average about 80 people – the 17th of which took place this summer. The positive impact he has had on law clerks around the state is evident in the things they have to say about him.

“He is very thoughtful, engaged, and encouraging,” says Attorney Ramey Sylvester, who externed with Justice Hicks during law school. “He just has an amazing grasp of the universe of the law – it was very impressive to me. His retirement is well-deserved. He has had a huge impact on New Hampshire’s jurisprudence and the community. He has cast a long, positive shadow. He is truly a giant in our state and, quite frankly, the United States.”

In 2010, he officiated the wedding of one of his former law clerks, Dover City Attorney Josh Wyatt.

“He and Patty even helped us write our vows,” Wyatt says. “I consider him one of my closest friends – certainly a lifelong mentor. He’s basically like a father to me. He’s very personable and approachable and has such a good sense of humor. He’s always trying to make everybody’s day better. His retirement is a loss but he’s going to find a way to apply his intellect, good will, and good judgment somewhere else.”

Attorney Cooley Arroyo, who externed with Justice Hicks as a 3L in 2014, says working with him was an absolute pleasure.

“He was a really dynamic mentor and a wonderful person to learn from,” she says. “He is one of the brightest personalities I’ve met in New Hampshire since I’ve lived here. I’ve never met another person who is so excited to talk to other people and learn about them – and not just lawyers. He has an appetite for the human experience, and it makes him such a fun person to be around. I thank him for his service to the state and the work he has done to cultivate our Bar and its membership. It’s an extraordinary contribution that will always be remembered.”

Once he is retired, Justice Hicks says he plans to increase his activity with St. Paul’s Advanced Studies Program and to continue with the American Inns of Court in some fashion. He would also like to spend more time with his grandkids.

“At the end of the day, I put my all into preserving and improving the common law and the jurisprudence that affects every citizen of New Hampshire and people around the country,” Justice Hicks says. “I had the privilege of working with people who supported and helped me and helped the judicial branch to their absolute limit. It is very gratifying to have worked in that environment. I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to do this job.”

There is currently a proposed constitutional amendment on the state ballot in November 2024 to raise the mandatory retirement age to 75, brought by former Chief Justice Lynn, who is now serving in the House of Representatives.