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Monday, April 23, 2012

More benches empty lately in state’s courts

CONCORD – Including a legislative mandate limiting the number of judges, New Hampshire courts are operating with 20 fewer judges than normal.

Lawmakers capped the number of Superior Court judges at 18 for the current two-year budget cycle. With one of those seats vacant, that leaves a total of five openings on the bench at the Superior Court level.

That’s in addition to one Supreme Court seat open following Justice James E. Duggan’s retirement, seven Circuit Court openings and seven part-time bench openings, according to data posted on the Judicial Branch website.

The shortage of justices extend the turnaround time for many court cases, especially civil cases.

The 20 openings leave 83 judges and marital masters, including part-time judges, to cover the state’s Supreme Court, 11 Superior Courts and 67 Circuit Courts in 40 locations.

At the same time, martial masters, which hear the majority of family law cases, including divorce and custody hearings, are being phased out, according to Phil Waystack, of Waystack Frizzel in Colebrook, and chairman of the state Judicial Nomination Commission.

The commission’s task is to screen potential judges and justices and forward its recommendation to Gov. John Lynch, who then nominates his pick to the Executive Council.

The last appointment made was Justice Robert Lynn’s appointment to the Supreme Court in November. He had been serving as chief justice of the Superior Courts.

The commission has forwarded its recommendations to Lynch on who should replace Duggan. After that the commission will tackle the Superior Court opening, Waystack said, and then the seven Circuit Court openings.

While the marital masters are still hearing most of the state’s divorce and custody cases, those vacancies aren’t much of an issue, Waystack said.

But as they are phased out, they need to be replaced with additional circuit court judges to pick up the slack, he said.

“As long as the marital masters keep going, that’s OK,” Waystack said.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com.

Also follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).