Jim Duggan made a name for himself advocating for others

  • James Duggan Courtesy

  • James Duggan —Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/15/2022 5:10:48 PM

Jim Duggan was impressed with himself and never tried to hide it.

But it wasn’t because of what you might think.

Yes, he was a pioneer in the Granite State’s public defender program, representing the poor who had never had a voice speak for them in the legal system.

And, sure, he graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and from Georgetown University LawCenter. He spent two years in the Peace Corps. He paved the way for other outsiders to have a crack at serving on the state Supreme Court. His former students at UNH’s Franklin Pierce Law Center continue to cite their former professor as the inspiration they needed to pursue law.

To Duggan, though, those words carried as much meaning as the words spoken by Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Duggan – a former New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice, died last week following a period of declining health. He was 79.

Before he passed, though, Duggan’s inner circle learned that he never had much use for puffing out his chest and tooting his own horn about his professional accomplishments. Instead, he preferred talking about the important stuff that he was good at:

Golf.

If he had played well, pulling that kind of information from Duggan wasn’t difficult.

“He was really good,” said Mitch Simon, Duggan’s colleague at Franklin Pierce Law Center. “If you could just mention that in your article about how good he was. He would have appreciated a tribute to his golf game.”

That other stuff? All those accomplishments and selfless acts?

“He had no need to show that he was the smartest guy in the room,” Simon says, “even though he often was.”

Duggan was nominated for the Supreme Court in 2001. His background as a public defender was not typical of a nominee, but Duggan’s pragmatism and his keen, fair mind were enough for him to sit on the bench. He retired in 2011.

He left behind a giant stable of admirers, each of whom noted his modest ways. Except when they turned to golf.

You can learn a lot from someone’s playing partners in golf. This foursome included Duggan, Paul Semple, Simon and Dave Garfunkel.

And while the latter two never wrote a hit song, the four men helped usher in a new era of compassion and justice, their mindset geared toward helping indigent people. Then they created a program that allowed the defendants who were found guilty to appeal their cases.

Semple was in the middle. He met Duggan more than 50 years ago, when both were young staff members at the public defenders’ office in Washington, D.C.

Their children grew up together. Semple and Duggan both loved French Bordeaux, and they’d search together for the best deal they could find.

While Duggan remained in D.C., for a while, Semple moved to the Granite State and became the first public defender in Concord. He called his friend in 1974.

“I asked him to come from D.C. and he came and now we cover the whole state, rather than just Merrimack County,” Semple said.

The pieces began to come together. Semple and Duggan hired Garfunkel as the first executive director of the public defender’s office. Simon joined Duggan teaching at Franklin Pierce.

This gave Simon the opportunity to watch a teacher who prioritized real-world experiences, giving his students a head start over others. He had his own cases from the public defenders’ office. That meant his students had those cases as well.

“He brought actors in and teaching assistants in the class,” Simon said. “They had bail hearings and they mediated cases. He made it real for them. Those years I worked hard on my classes, but I enjoyed sitting and listening to his course. He was the best teacher at the school.”

The meat and potatoes for Duggan, the code he lived by, in work and in life, was to help the poor receive justice in the criminal system.

As Garfunkel said, “He spent his entire career giving back to society. He did a lot of work with underprivileged folks. He was just a good, decent man, and he cared about the law and fairness and justice. He spent his career advocating for any number of poor people.”

In fact, Duggan presented hundreds of cases before the Supreme Court, the most in Concord history and perhaps the state.

Teaching was in Duggan’s DNA. He taught and instilled confidence in his students, bringing them into a “courtroom” and showing them, not telling them, how things work.

Cathy Green is an attorney with Shaheen and Gordon. Duggan hired the young attorney as an investigator and the two remained friends.

“He was the most influential person in my career, but I am not alone,” Green said via email. “Over the last few days, I have heard from many people who commented that he was the reason that they chose their careers, whether as public defenders, appellate defenders, or criminal lawyers.”

There was another side to Duggan, of course. The side that loved painting and poetry, gardening and reading.

Also, Garfunkel was grateful that his friend was fluent in French. That made their annual Thanksgiving trip to Montreal smoother, helping them to be seated at the best restaurants in town.

“If you don’t speak French, you could not go to the greatest restaurants there,” Garfunkel said. “People would pretend they did not speak English. Then he speaks this wonderful, lovely French and their faces would light up and they couldn’t be nicer to us. He opened that part of the world to us.”

Duggan’s health had declined before he died. Simon said he “knew it was on the horizon. A great loss.”

Still, Duggan had plenty of time to focus on his golf game. Forget all that other stuff.

The man could golf. He wanted you to know that.

“He was a really good golfer,” Garfunkel said. “His health declined and that affected his game, but we played for close to 40 years.

“He had a beautiful golf swing.”


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.



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