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Beyond the robe: Freshman Supreme Court Justice Jim Bassett has a unique vantage point

  • New Hampshire Supreme Court Associate Justice James Bassett finishes up feeding the family horse on his farm in Canterbury this Spring before heading to work in Concord.

    New Hampshire Supreme Court Associate Justice James Bassett finishes up feeding the family horse on his farm in Canterbury this Spring before heading to work in Concord.

  • March 1980--Treaking in Nepal with college and kibbutz buddies.<br/><br/>Bassett is on the right.

    March 1980--Treaking in Nepal with college and kibbutz buddies.

    Bassett is on the right.

  • NH Supreme Court ssociate Justice James Bassett runs in the 2014 Boston Marathon.

    NH Supreme Court ssociate Justice James Bassett runs in the 2014 Boston Marathon.

  • New Hampshire Supreme Court Associate Justice James Bassett finishes up feeding the family horse on his farm in Canterbury this Spring before heading to work in Concord.
  • March 1980--Treaking in Nepal with college and kibbutz buddies.<br/><br/>Bassett is on the right.
  • NH Supreme Court ssociate Justice James Bassett runs in the 2014 Boston Marathon.

Jim Bassett had made all the right moves – but something was missing.

It was spring 1979, and the future litigator turned state Supreme Court judge was nearing the end of his first year at the University of Virginia School of Law. He was 22 and unmistakably accomplished – just a year earlier, he had graduated cum laude from Dartmouth College.

But he was also consumed by wanderlust, and had been reflecting increasingly on the two-year Peace Corps stint he had passed up by coming to Virginia.

So that June, Bassett did something few promising young law students do: He dropped out, bought a one-way plane ticket to Europe, and told friends he had little idea of when he would return.

“I wanted to see the world,” he recalled recently. “And I realized there would be fewer and fewer opportunities for me to do that.”

It was an unorthodox move, one of the first in a nearly four-decade-long odyssey that has led Bassett to some of the planet’s remotest corners and back, and to his present post, as No. 5 in the state’s highest judicial branch.

At 57 and just two years after being sworn in, Bassett is both the youngest and newest member of the five-bodied Supreme Court, and is the only active justice never to have previously served as a trial court judge. He is also one of the only justices to have run for political office (U.S. House of Representatives, 1994; he lost in the Republican primaries), and to have served more than a quarter-century in municipal government.

Within five years, he will almost assuredly rise to one of two leading roles at the court, as three of his superiors – Chief Justice Linda Dalianis and Associate Justices Carol Ann Conboy and Robert Lynn – turn 70 and will be forced to retire under court rules. Meaning by the end of this decade, the court will have entered a markedly new iteration, with Bassett at or near its helm.

In oral arguments, Bassett often appears the quietest of the bunch, the lanky bespectacled gentleman on the right who occasionally clears his throat and who sometimes gets a word in edgewise. He was well acquainted with the court before arriving in 2012, having spent 27 years as a civil and trial attorney at Orr & Reno, one of the state’s biggest law firms, based in Concord.

He has argued before his now-colleagues and prior justices dozens of times.

Those who know Bassett tend to describe him with some variation of “incorruptible” and “the most integrity” and “incredibly respected.” “Hardworking” is another.

“He’s one of those guys who if he has an empty 20 minutes in his schedule, he’ll find some way to fill it,” said Bob Steenson, a neighbor and current chairman of the Canterbury Board of Selectmen. “He’s a dynamo.”

Sabin Willett, a former colleague and close friend, said he couldn’t think of discernible flaws.

“Lawyers have different temperaments,” Willett said. “Jim’s not flamboyant. I used to wonder if I could go back in time and see Lincoln when he was practicing law, if he would be a little like Bassett.”

The runner and the farmer

Early one morning in mid-April, Bassett was at his farm in Canterbury, where he and his wife, Ellen, have lived since the mid-80s and raised three now-adult children. It was the week before the Boston Marathon, and Bassett, an avid runner, was gearing up for the race. He has run Boston numerous times, and had planned for 2013 to be his final go – the training eats up so much time. But like many runners that year, shaken by a pair of bombings at the finish line, he couldn’t end on a such a tragic note.

Bassett was dressed in a button-down shirt and tie, slacks and mud-speckled duck boots. He picked up a bucket of watery horse feed and trudged outside toward the barn. There is just one horse at the moment, but there have been others in the past. Ellen is the equestrian of the couple, Bassett the willing farmhand.

Bassett is not one for luxury or show. Ask anyone. He prefers simple clothes – muted colors, breezy styles, sometimes a dash of flair in the tie. He is frugal, to say the least. “I was a little worried he wouldn’t show up with a suit on for his own swearing in,” Willett said.

At Orr & Reno, Bassett was known to subsist largely on day-old bagels and discounted peanut butter. He now routinely lunches with the other justices. They like to carpool to the Shaw’s on Loudon Road; it has a great salad bar. If you’re trying to save a buck, Bassett recommends sticking to lightweight foods – mushrooms, sprouts, croutons and such – for an arguably filling $3.50 meal.

During a tour last month of Bassett’s court chambers, someone pointed out an antique stand-up radio and asked him about its pedigree. He said he didn’t know, he found it years ago at the dump. According to courthouse lore, Ellen directed him to get it out of the house.

And the stories go on. The one about the tattered L.L. Bean backpack with an unknown person’s initials. Or the one about the $75 suit. Or the one about the family flights to Hawaii that included weeklong layovers in Asia because, through some promotional fluke, it was cheaper to fly further.

Two things about Bassett, culled from the many stories: He is a slight but seemingly unstoppable physical force, and he has a pattern of showing up in ostensibly random places. He once climbed Mount Kilimanjaro five months after the second of two invasive back operations. He was in Seattle, at age 6, for the opening of the Space Needle. He was in the Middle East during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. He shared a cigar once with Nelson Rockefeller on the Hudson.

The globetrotter

Bassett didn’t set out to become a judge, or a lawyer, for that matter. He said he’s never had much of a plan, always “assessed my opportunities as they came along and did what I felt was the right thing. And I’ve always tried to do what I am doing the best that I can.”

“Life is full of diversions and dead-ends,” Bassett said, “most of which are entertaining and make you a better person and a better citizen.”

Bassett grew up in suburban Connecticut, the youngest of two – he has an older sister – and spent summers on a family farm near Woodstock, Vt. He was athletic from the start and later joined the crew team at Dartmouth. Between that and classes, he said, there wasn’t much time left for other pursuits. He still managed to also be active in the school’s outing club and at the student radio station, where he helped cover the 1976 presidential primaries.

Physical activity has always been Bassett’s preferred release, his drug of choice. He runs most days, bikes during the summers, and, as Willett put it, skis “white-knuckle chutes, where the only other guys on the mountain are younger than his clothes.”

By August 1978, Bassett had returned home to Connecticut and was preparing to depart for the Peace Corps – he had been assigned to Malaysia – when an admissions official at Virginia called. Bassett had been wait-listed by Virginia, but a student had just dropped out. If he wanted it, the official said, the spot was his.

Bassett had approached law school with pragmatic foresight. A soft-spoken yet frenetic overachiever, he studied political science as an undergraduate and at the time envisioned a career somehow involving public policy. A degree from one of the country’s top legal programs could only help his cause. So when the phone rang, he did perhaps the only thing he could: He threw his things in his car and headed south.

He left for Europe the next June, working in Greece and Israel for several months before continuing to Egypt, India and Nepal. Bassett returned to Virginia the following year, reinvigorated and more sure of his professional future than ever before, he said. (He had reapplied to the school from a kibbutz in Israel.) He graduated a few years later, worked in Boston for a time, and moved to Canterbury with Ellen in 1985.

At Orr & Reno, Bassett carved out a niche first in medical malpractice defense and later in media and First Amendment rights. (He has defended the Monitor, as well as many other news outlets, in past cases.) He said he gravitated toward civil litigation because the cases often involve complex legal questions and, because of the money involved, often allow attorneys to immerse themselves in the issues at hand.

That’s less easy to do at the Supreme Court, where the caseload – and related reading – can at times feel overwhelming.

“My wife has tried to lay down a rule that there should be a day a week when I don’t open briefs or opinions,” Bassett said. “That’s been very hard.”

He explained: “Some of (these cases) are important to everyone, but all of them are important to someone. So it’s very hard to close a brief and say, okay, that’s as far as I’m going to go on that case, because I have 20 other ones I have to read in order to prepare for oral arguments that week.”

Bassett’s world has contracted since arriving at the bench, which he expected but which has nevertheless presented a challenge. He’s had to relinquish his community reach, including his roles in town government and several area nonprofits. Justices must be acutely aware at all times of the people they meet, so as to limit any real or perceived bias in future cases. That can be tough – for any new judge.

“It’s very difficult to make new friends,” said Associate Justice Gary Hicks.

Bassett likes to quip that the only drinking buddies he still has are former Orr & Reno colleagues, as he’s disqualified from sitting in on their cases at the court. But in all honesty, he said, he deliberated on that trade-off at length and “decided there are different ways to contribute to the community at different times in your life.”

“The older I got, the more acceptable it was to have that level of restriction on my life,” Bassett said. “Because I had done all these other things already. I’d spent 20 years in town government so, okay, I was giving up the opportunity to do that another 10 or 15 years. That was acceptable in a way that it wasn’t a few years ago, because those things really mattered to me.”

The justice

On a Thursday late last month, the justices gathered for a bi-weekly conference day, when they essentially lock themselves in a back room and pore over every word of every decision that will ever leave the court. The judges were seated around a long conference table, each staring down a small tower of court briefs and decision drafts.

Bassett was seated closest to the exit. One of his duties as the freshman justice is to open the door whenever someone knocks. He said he also manages the fire during the winter months. The court has a host of rituals and lighthearted traditions. Everything falls in descending order – the judges line up in order, they sit in order, work in order, park in order. To determine who takes which case, they draw names from an aging silver pitcher that was regifted to the court from the widow of former chief justice Robert Peaslee.

Bassett is also the liaison for several court-related committees, and is the designated scrivener in the minutes following oral arguments, when the justices quickly huddle to rehash a case and gauge which way each other is leaning. A related tidbit, courtesy of Bassett: Though it takes months for a decision to be announced, the judges typically reach a verdict within those first few minutes.

Life moved at a different pace when Bassett was on the other side of the bench, when he was the one delivering the arguments, the one answering the questions, he said. As a lawyer coming before the justices, he could focus on one case – one set of laws, one set of facts, one set of related rulings. He would arrive at the court, quickly say his piece, and then be out the door, usually for a long midday run.

Now, Bassett said, that crescendo has been replaced by a more continuous hum. There’s no window to pat yourself on the back. “You’re in oral arguments and the red light goes off and the lawyers pack up their bags and move out, and you take that pile of briefs and move it over and take a new pile of briefs and move it over,” he said. “I look at my notes and 30 seconds later you’re in the middle of that (next) case.”

It’s a challenge, undoubtedly, but one for which Bassett is perhaps uniquely positioned to handle. After all, he’s the runner, the globetrotter, the penny pincher and the family man. He’s the litigator, the farmer, the student, the quiet one in the crowd. He’s the everyman.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Justice Bassett’s involvement with the Dartmouth College Republicans. He was not a member of the club.

Great story about a terrific person.

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