Judges on Judging

On May 25, 2023, the Rockefeller Center presented the Roger S. Aaron '64 Lecture, featuring a panel of alumni judges offering insights into the legal profession and their career paths. Nearly 60 attendees flooded Hinman Forum for the event.

Joining the Rockefeller Center for "Judges on Judging: Alumni Perspectives from the Bench" were three distinguished alumni judges, Justice James Bassett '78 of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, Justice Anne Patterson '80 of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and Judge Christopher Keating '86 of the New Hampshire Circuit Court. The discussion was hosted by Assistant Director of the Rockefeller Center Herschel Nachlis and moderated by Rockefeller Center Lecturer Julie Kalish '91.

Following brief remarks and introductions to each panelist by Herschel Nachlis, each judge shared their academic and professional journeys thus far.

Justice James Bassett remarked that he was fortunate to spend his entire legal career in New Hampshire. In 2012, Justice Bassett, a self-identified Republican, was appointed by Democratic Governor John Lynch, saying, "I was a sort of middle path." Justice Bassett noted his unique perspective on the Court, "When I got on the Court, I was the only judge who had not previously been a trial judge. I brought that perspective to the Court."

Justice Anne Patterson began by echoing a sentiment previously expressed by Justice Bassett, saying, "It's a lot easier to ask the questions than it is to answer the questions," noting the unique position of judges in the legal system.

Judge Christopher Keating began his legal career as a public defender in New Hampshire before opening a public defender's office servicing the northern New Hampshire region. "The privilege of representing people in court as a public defender was defining because you met them at the lowest moment of their lives, but also at a time where you could potentially exert the most influence over them," Judge Keating said about the impact of his work at the individual level.

Professor Kalish then discussed the differences between the state and federal court systems and the more significant popularity in debating the federal system, probing, "To what extent do you really experience that as a part of your job?"

Justice Bassett and Judge Patterson spoke about state courts and their greater statutory focus rather than constitutional cases. As state judges they handle a much larger caseload than federal judges, and the lower courts interact with citizens to the greatest degree and frequency, "their docket is very different," Justice Bassett explained. Judge Patterson continued, saying, "In our day-to-day work, we are not interpreting the federal constitution, our work is more statutory." Justice Keating agreed, saying that the state courts deal more with "trod-upon territory."

Professor Kalish opened the floor for student questions, and beginning with "Which [types of] cases are easier to mull over?" All judges expressed similar feelings toward the cases they oversee, offering a degree of humanity to those before them. Judge Patterson explained, "It's very hard for me to pick out a difficult case… because those cases all matter. Somebody's liberties are at stake… they're all difficult." Justice Bassett nodded in agreement as he continued, "One of the significant changes that have occurred during my 11 years on the Court" has been a dramatic increase in domestic abuse cases brought in front of the Court. "By the time it gets up to us, it's generally distilled down to the legal issues, but you can still feel the human pain behind it." Justice Keating echoed those sentiments: "There really aren't any easy cases. The wheels have fallen off the trolley if somebody is coming into Court." Justice Keating spoke to the human effects and repercussions of addiction and homelessness, then concluded with, "I will try to treat every person who comes before me with the dignity that they deserve."

The next student asked about age limits imposed upon judges, which is law in New Hampshire (age 70 for judges). Reflecting on the mandatory retirement age  in NH, Judge Patterson said, "I actually welcome it. And I will miss this job when I turn 70 more than I can express… [but] generational diversity is a great value to me." Justice Bassett demurred, saying, "I think the State of New Hampshire has lost a lot in their retirement." Although he regrets the loss of legal talent because of retirement, he is also concerned about stamina or the ability to sustain the lifestyle. Judge Patterson agreed, "I don't know if when I'm 75, I'll be able to stay up till 3 in the afternoon! To me, it's just realistic to recognize that you won't be as energetic."

Justice Patterson agreed with the concern over stamina, although she also spoke about the unique engagement professionals feel for the law. She said, "To the students out there thinking about a legal career… you start to see when your friends in other fields retire… lawyers generally want to die at their desks… and that's a tribute to how wonderful of a job it is."

Justice Bassett followed up, ultimately agreeing with age limits for judges but suggesting 75 as an alternative age limit, "term limits make a lot of sense to me. I don't think the race to appoint the youngest judge is healthy," speaking to the Supreme Court especially.

Professor Kalish, "in true Dartmouth fashion," she said, asked the judges to conclude by providing advice for any prospective legal professionals in the audience. Judge Patterson began, "I'll make a pitch for the law," continuing with, "A law degree will make you stronger and more capable of helping people in whatever field you choose… I think it is as rewarding a profession as there ever could be." Echoing Judge Patterson, Justice Bassett shared, "It's intellectually fascinating, and you can accomplish so much to help people… You can make such a difference in the law." Justice Bassett also spoke about the pressures to plan out the future and follow the 'traditional legal path,' instead advising students to keep open minds, "Doors will open in the most unexpected ways at the most unexpected times." Justice Keating concluded, "This is going to sound sanctimonious because it is, but just try to develop the skills necessary to serve our communities in the humblest ways possible." Inspiringly, each judge spoke about the public service accomplished by judges and actors across our legal system and their real human impact on society. 

In a perfect summation of the evening's discussion, the judges agreed, "You're dealing with human beings who have very human problems." This final event of the Spring 2023 quarter provided students and community members with on-the-ground perspectives from alumni judges.