By Tom Jarvis

Circuit Court Administrative Judge David King standing by the bench of the Concord Probate Court. Photo by Tom Jarvis

New Hampshire Circuit Court (NHCC) Administrative Judge David King, an innovative paragon of the bench for 34 years, announced his retirement effective July 1, 2024.

Born in Colebrook, Judge King is the son of the late Frederick King, a renowned politician who served three terms in the State Senate and three terms in the State House. After graduating from Colebrook Academy, Judge King enrolled at Plymouth State College intending to acquire an associate degree in business and then join the workforce.

“But that changed when I ended up taking a business law class with a young professor named David Kent,” Judge King recalls. “He was also a judge in the Plymouth District Court and had a huge impact on my decision to attend law school. I fell in love with business law and transferred into the four-year program at Plymouth State. After I graduated in 1981, he encouraged me to apply for law school. Ironically, years later, he worked for me as a judge and now as a referee.”

His law trajectory confirmed, Judge King began attending Franklin Pierce Law Center, interning at the Public Defender’s Office. He also became one of the youngest legislators at the time, serving on the House Judiciary Committee and as a delegate to the 17th Constitutional Convention in 1984.

“House Bill 200 was the major legislation that year, unifying the court system,” he says. “I was involved in consolidating the county- and municipal-based courts into a state court. Chuck Douglas was on the Supreme Court at the time and Dick Galway was the president of the Bar Association. So, before I was a lawyer, I got to see how the sausage was made and watched the creation of this unified court system that we’ve had now for 40 years.”

Initially planning to serve as a public defender upon graduation, Judge King was persuaded by Philip Waystack, a well-known lawyer from Colebrook, to return to the North Country and join his practice.

“When I was in high school, Phil was a brand-new lawyer in town,” Judge King says. “When he visited our class, he had cowboy boots on and a cigar in his pocket. After he’d been in town for a couple of years, he became chairman of the school board.”

During the interview process, the two hit it off instantly and became close friends over the years. Waystack, who recently celebrated 50 years of practice, speaks highly of Judge King.

“He was an exceptional lawyer and is an exceptional judge,” he says. “He has a natural leadership ability – people naturally cling to him. He’s one of the quickest-witted people, too. He has an exceptional speed of analysis and the ability to articulate a clear opinion almost immediately. Give him a situation and he’ll give you an instant analysis and he’s virtually always right. And he’s not arrogant – there is not a bone of arrogance in that man.”

After receiving his JD in 1984, Judge King joined Waystack’s practice as an associate alongside the late Vickie Bunnell. Two years later, he became a partner, and the firm was renamed Waystack & King. At about the same time, then-Governor John Sununu offered him a district court judgeship, which he declined due to financial considerations.

“I was a criminal defense lawyer, and I had to feed my family, so I couldn’t afford to become a judge at the time,” Judge King says. “So, I respectfully said no, although I was flattered.”

In 1990, judicial opportunity came knocking again when then-Governor Judd Gregg offered him a position as a part-time judge for the Coos County Probate Court, which he accepted at just 30 years old. The part-time probate role allowed him to balance his judicial duties and his law practice without conflict, as he mainly practiced in criminal defense and civil litigation.

Judge Jonathan Frizzell, who began as an associate at the firm in 1996, says he always admired Judge King’s work ethic.

“David is very intelligent, always polite, down to earth, and very responsive,” he says. “But even more than that is his work ethic. He was my role model in the early years, in terms of how to balance work life, home life, and public commitments. When he became a judge, the State of New Hampshire got its money’s worth in terms of how hard a worker he is.”

In 2007, Judge King transitioned to a full-time judicial role when the New Hampshire Supreme Court (NHSC) appointed him Administrative Judge of the Probate Courts.

“It’s a big change going from lawyer to judge – it’s a pretty isolating job,” Judge King says. “I miss trying cases, especially jury cases. Phil and I used to joke around about how we couldn’t believe we were getting paid to do it. I’m not going to, but if I went back and tried cases, I would be much more efficient now. Many of the arguments I made as a lawyer were not nearly as persuasive when I was hearing them as a judge.”

Judge King’s innovative spirit shone through early in his tenure as he introduced service centers in the Probate Court to aid pro se litigants, a precursor to what is now the Court Navigator Program.

In 2005, he received the NHBA’s Vickie Bunnell Award for Community Service, a poignant recognition named after his late friend and associate.

“That was a pretty emotional award to get,” he says. “We were friends. We had a lot in common – we both went to Plymouth State and we both became judges. Her loss was something that shook the whole North Country. So, getting that award was really important in my career. It meant a lot to me.”


Attorney Phil Waystack handing a young David King his high school diploma at Colebrook Academy’s 1977 graduation ceremony. Courtesy Photo

In 2010, following a legislative push for court system efficiency, then-NHSC Chief Justice John Broderick formed an Innovation Commission and named Judge King as one of the judicial members.

“Out of that [commission] came the idea of combining the Probate Court, District Court, and Family Division into one court – the Circuit Court,” Judge King says, recalling that he and Edwin Kelly, who was the administrative judge of the district and family divisions, crafted the legislation using flip charts and Post-It Notes. “Because I had the best handwriting, I actually wrote what became RSA 490-F that created the Circuit Court.”

Thus, the NHCC – which hears nearly 100,000 cases annually across its 31 district and family divisions and 10 probate divisions – was created and subsequently implemented on July 1, 2011.

“The bill was introduced in January 2011,” Judge King says. “We asked the legislature for ten years to implement it, but they wanted it implemented by July 1. We went from 115 clerks and deputy clerks down to 52. [Telling more than half the clerks they would lose their jobs] was one of the most difficult things I ever did in court management, apart from COVID-19. But we did it. We were up and running by July 1. This was the biggest change that’s happened in a hundred years in the court system.”

He says the NHCC’s creation streamlined the management structure, saving millions of dollars, while also improving judicial scheduling efficiency. Judge Kelly was appointed the Administrative Judge with Judge King as Deputy Administrative Judge.

“We then went from 52 clerks down to 18, which is what we still have,” he says. “I think we cut too deeply, though, because 18 clerks are not enough – we would like to add some more – but we were acting under extreme pressure from the legislature to come up with ways to save money.”

The next year, Judge King and his team established the Court Information Center, a centralized call center for the Circuit and Superior courts. Since then, the staff – the largest group of employees in the court system – have taken over five million calls.

According to an article Judge King wrote for NH Business Review in 2020, the implementation of both the NHCC and the Information Center saved the State more than $55 million and vastly improved court efficiency. Since then, although an updated analysis has not been performed, he estimates the savings have increased further.

In 2014, Judge King created the Complex Trust Docket, a subdivision of the NHCC that takes on heavy-litigation trust, estate, and probate cases, ensuring faster resolutions. He now manages most of the cases after Judge Gary Cassavechia – who was originally assigned to the docket – retired.

Judge King became the NHCC’s Administrative Judge when Judge Kelly retired in 2018. Two years later, when the COVID-19 pandemic began wreaking its havoc, he and his team scrambled to transition to telephonic hearings, handling over 300,000 in two years.

Retired Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau, who navigated the courts through the pandemic alongside Judge King, praises his leadership.

“He is somebody that I trust 100 percent,” she says. “We can work together honestly and with transparency. And if we have a disagreement, we work toward a common solution all the time. And that has been very rewarding. He is somebody who makes difficult choices without fear; he is confident without being conceited; he’s decisive without being arrogant; and he has so much passion but he’s not pretentious. A good leader is somebody who cares about getting it right, rather than who gets credit for it. And that’s how he always operated.”

In 2021, Judge King initiated a new procedure for involuntary emergency admissions, reducing case dismissals dramatically.
“We were dismissing upwards of 30 to 40 percent of those cases because we couldn’t meet the mandatory three-day deadline,” he says. “But we’ve only had 19 cases dismissed out of the 5,000 hearings we’ve had since the new process began.”

This achievement, along with his previous efforts over the years, earned him national recognition when he was given the 2021 Innovator of the Year Award by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

At the 2024 NHBA Annual Meeting earlier this month, he also received the Justice William A. Grimes Award for Judicial Professionalism.

“That was also a big honor,” he says. “Two of my mentors, John Maher and John Broderick, were previous recipients of that award. They both played a big part in where I am today, and it means a lot to me.”

Throughout his career, Judge King served on several non-profit boards and committees, including 22 years on the Upper Connecticut Valley Hospital board, with 20 years as president. He also served two terms on the NHBA Board of Governors, more than 20 years as the Colebrook School Moderator, and has been a member of the Committee on Cooperation with the Courts since 2007.

In 2000, he was named Outstanding Hospital Trustee of the Year by the New Hampshire Hospital Association.

Among his proudest achievements is the building of the Concord Probate Court. After the old building was demolished, he suggested moving the Probate Court to the former Administrative Office of the Courts building.

“At the same time, the Bankruptcy Court was moving out of Manchester, and I called Judge Laplante and asked what he was going to do with the courtrooms,” Judge King recalls. “He said the federal government was going to demolish them. So, we took the benches and furniture and had them rebuilt and installed here. It’s pretty fancy for a state court. I’ve had cases in the trust docket with as many as 16 lawyers. Ordinary courtrooms don’t accommodate that, so we have one of the larger courtrooms here with four counsel tables and plenty of room. This building is something I will always be proud of.”

Those who have worked with or for Judge King say he is known for his deep care for his colleagues and staff, as well as the justice system.

“David King is one of the kindest people that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing,” says Circuit Court Deputy Administrative Judge Susan Ashley. “He truly cares about the employees of the Circuit Court and about the litigants that come in front of him. He is not showy; he is not looking for press releases or publicity. He’s very focused on trying to provide the best justice that we can for the people of New Hampshire. He is such a great communicator, and he really listens to people. His retiring is a huge loss to the Judicial Branch.”

NHBA Executive Director Sarah Blodgett, who first worked with him when she was the executive director of the Judicial Council and then directly for him as a circuit court administrator, says he sets a very high bar for his successor.

Judge King and attorney Phil Waystack became lifelong friends almost immediately. Waystack is on Judge King’s lifetime recusal list. Photo by Tom Jarvis

“Judge King has incredible institutional knowledge – his understanding of and belief in the Circuit Court’s work is unparalleled,” she says. “He is always looking for ways to innovate and to improve access to justice for self-represented litigants. He’s also concerned about staff well-being and understands how challenging this work is for the folks who are in the courthouse everyday serving the public. He relentlessly advocated for an increase in pay for the lowest paid employees in the Judicial Branch, and truly wants to acknowledge and reward the hard work that is being done there. Judge King tells all new Circuit Court judges who come in front of him, ‘you are not the most important person in this building – the court staff are, because they are the ones who are dealing with folks day in and day out.’”

As he prepares for retirement, Judge King is visiting courts statewide to thank those he served with.

“To the extent that I have had any success in this business, it’s due to the tremendous talent and hard work of our judges, managers, and staff,” Judge King says. “I have been sharing my management secret with staff as I travel around: Hire managers who are smarter than me and empower them to make decisions.”

Senior Circuit Court Administrator Heather Kulp, who has worked with Judge King for more than seven years, regards him as the best boss she has ever had.

“He leads with a deep sense of integrity and mission, and I am grateful for that,” she says. “He continually brings us back to what the mission of the Circuit Court is and the mission of the Judicial Branch at large, which is to serve the people of New Hampshire and do so with dignity for everyone that we serve. It’s really been an honor to serve with him as my boss. The residents of New Hampshire are all better for him being the leader of the Circuit Court.”

Judge King says he feels it’s the right time to retire, noting that of the 45 full-time judges and marital masters on staff at the time of the NHCC’s creation, he is the “last one standing.”

“The court system is always changing,” he says. “I feel like I’ve reached a point as an administrative judge where it’s time for somebody else to take over the administrative aspect of the job. It can be grueling, and I want to spend some more time with my family. I have a new grandson who is on the West Coast. I’ve been talking to a lot of retired parties, and they’ve all said, ‘when it’s time, you’ll know.’ It feels like the right time.”

On May 15, the NHSC selected Judge Ellen Christo to succeed Judge King as the Circuit Court Administrative Judge. She says he “leaves enormous shoes to fill” but that she is eager to get started.

Judge King plans to stay on as a senior active judge and would like to continue to manage the Trust Docket.

“David’s retirement is a great loss to the court system,” says Waystack. “He has been of great service to the State of New Hampshire. His ability to help navigate the court system through financial and legal matters of the legislature is unparalleled. But having said all that, I am glad for him. He’s done his work. I think it’s time for him to focus on his family. If anybody has earned the right to step away and be appreciated for their efforts, it’s David King.”