Superior Court judge McNamara to retire after 11 years in Merrimack County

  • Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara presides in a courtroom in early June. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara in one of the courtrooms in early June. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara in one of the courtrooms in early June. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/28/2020 5:07:20 PM

Richard McNamara was a newly minted graduate of Boston College Law School in 1975 when he was recruited by now-retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter to work at the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.

Souter, then New Hampshire’s deputy attorney general, frequented law schools where he tapped young lawyers for staff attorney positions at the state’s justice department.

“David transformed the office and hired a bunch of young people from out of state. I was one of them,” recalled McNamara, who for the last 11 years has served as a judge in Merrimack County. “I had no background in criminal law but I interviewed with David and I must have fooled him because he hired me. I learned right out of law school how to try murder cases to verdict. That was before I was 30.”

McNamara, a New Jersey native, had enrolled as an undergraduate at Boston College to study English literature. He loved history and writing but he hadn’t considered a career in law until one of his college roommates suggested it. To his delight, he was immediately taken by the intellectual challenge of the subject matter, and he learned he was actually rather good at it, despite having never taken a political science class.

As a young attorney, McNamara hoped that by serving his community he would make a difference in people’s lives. He has presided from the bench with that same philosophy. Now, just days away from retirement, he hopes to have left a memorable mark on New Hampshire’s justice system.

“I was always told to leave the world a little better than you found it, and that if you’ve done that, you’ve done as much as anyone can expect of you,” said McNamara during a recent interview with the Monitor in an otherwise empty courtroom in Concord. “I promised to stay as long as I could and to get as much done as I could, but I always knew I’d have to retire at age 70.”

Due to the mandatory retirement age of 70 years under the New Hampshire’s Constitution, McNamara will hang up his black robe for the final time this week and officially retire on July 4. His retirement, though planned, comes as the state’s courts remain open on a restricted basis due to health concerns caused by the new coronavirus.

Judge Andy Schulman, who currently sits in Rockingham County, has been reassigned to Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord, and will preside over many cases that McNamara otherwise would have heard. Additionally, Judge David Anderson will be the new head of the state’s business court, which will move from Merrimack County to the northern division of Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester.

When the Executive Council confirmed then-Gov. John Lynch’s nomination of McNamara to the Superior Court bench in 2009, McNamara became the first judge of the state’s newly created business court, which provides a designated forum for the resolution of complex business cases.

By that time, McNamara, who was 59, had practiced for 30 years at Wiggin & Nourie in Manchester, which has since dissolved. The law firm offered him a job in 1979 after he had spent four years as a prosecutor at the state attorney general’s office. In his early years at Wiggin & Nourie, McNamara took on some court-appointed criminal cases, including a capital murder in the 1980s, but his primary focus was commercial litigation. That experience made him a prime candidate for the business court judgeship.

McNamara said predictability is important to business people and they need that assurance that the courts will enforce contracts. He said the business court finally gave businesspeople a forum in which their cases could be resolved; whereas previously, the cases would be deprioritized over criminal matters and handled by judges who didn’t necessarily have a working familiarity with the subject matter and the relevant laws.

For McNamara, the law provides clear direction in business cases. Those cases don’t often involve questions of credibility like criminal cases do.

“The hardest thing for any judge is sentencing in criminal cases,” McNamara said. “There is no book I can pull off the shelf and read that will give me the answer for that particular case. To preside over criminal cases, we have to make determinations as to believability.”

When taking a guilty plea, McNamara said, he takes a lot of time with defendants to make sure they not only understand their rights but that they feel like they’ve been treated fairly by the system.

“Almost nobody I’ve ever sentenced goes to jail forever. Sooner or later they’re going to come out, and how they act will depend, in part, on how they feel they were treated,” he said. “I don’t focus my comments on telling a person how bad I think he is; I try to find something positive. Even in the most heinous of cases, like sexual assault cases, I can say, ‘You’ve taken responsibility and saved someone the additional trauma of having to go through a trial.’ ”

Like the judges he serves with, McNamara has seen people at the worst moments in their lives and he said those experiences have reinforced for him the importance of compassion but also the need for structure and rules.

“I’m not perfect but I try to remember that everyone who is in front of me is a human being,” he said.

As a reflected on his career earlier this month, he said life certainly took a turn when the first positive cases of coronavirus were confirmed in early March. He knew he would soon step down from his post in Merrimack County but he imagined a more ‘normal’ farewell.

“I had planned to travel to see my grandchildren. We’ll see how that goes,” he said with a laugh about his plans for this summer.

McNamara and his wife, Linda, have three children and five grandchildren. They are scattered across the U.S. and in Europe.

Wherever life takes him post-retirement, McNamara said he will always return to the Granite State. He and his wife were college sweethearts and made Bedford their home about 35 years ago.

“I like to travel but I also like to come home. We’ve lived in the same place for a long time and it’s pretty comfortable,” he said. “We have the same house we lived in when the children were little. We don’t need a big house anymore, except our children now have families of their own, and when they can come to visit it’s nice to have the space – to be in a familiar space to make new memories.”

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