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Jim Kenyon: Losing lawyers’ lounge at Grafton County Courthouse hurts defense

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, June 15, 2019

When I heard the Grafton County Courthouse had a “Lawyers’ Lounge,” I imagined a room with oak paneled walls, a well-stocked bar offering single-malt scotch and a big-screen TV showing reruns of Ally McBeal.

But when I stopped by Thursday, I found nothing of the sort. Unless a mini-fridge and a Mr. Coffee maker count as opulence.

Defense attorneys have had their own space on the second floor of the courthouse since the building opened nearly 50 years ago. With shelves of law books, conference tables and comfortable chairs, the large room has served an important function over the decades.

It’s a place where defense lawyers work on closing arguments during trials, make sensitive cellphone calls in private and hash out legal strategy among themselves.

Just not for much longer.

Earlier this month, Grafton County Bar Association members were informed they would be evicted on July 31, per order of county commissioners.

In a June 4 letter, the three-member commission told bar members the “county is going to need to take over that space” to make more room for its own legal staff.

“The County Attorney’s Office is bursting at the seams,” commissioners wrote. “We are in dire need of that space and although we understand that this will not be a popular decision amongst members of the bar, it really is the only option that we see.”

They were right about the bar’s reaction. The room serves as a “headquarters for attorneys when we are in trial or have multiple files to keep track of,” said Lebanon attorney Charlie Buttrey. “I am aware that most courthouses don’t have such a lounge, but it does equal the playing field when it comes to trial.”

Giving bar members the heave-ho is a subtle power play on the county’s part. By making it more difficult for defense attorneys — public defenders, in particular — to do their job, prosecutors gain even more of an upper hand than they already enjoy.

The Grafton County Attorney’s Office has immense power. Its 10 lawyers determine who gets prosecuted and whether cases are felonies or misdemeanors. Every law enforcement agency in the county is at their beck and call. And they play with house money (i.e. taxpayers’ dollars), which gives them freedom to decide how much time and resources go into individual cases.

Grafton County Attorney Marcie Hornick insists the bar isn’t being tossed out on the street. Its members still have access to a few small conference rooms inside the courthouse. But defense lawyers told me the rooms aren’t always available and don’t lend themselves to getting work done.

“It’s extraordinarily important to have a place to go during jury trials,” attorney Simon Mayo said. “We need to have that space.”

Hornick, who was elected to her first term in November, said that she “totally gets” why defense attorneys are upset. She was a public defender for 15 years and remembers having to sometimes work out of her car.

But now she’s on the other side.

Her office, which has 22 employees, already has an attorney and another staffer working next door at the county administration building. She prefers to have everyone in the courthouse and, for privacy reasons, not to share offices.

At the Grafton County Commission meeting May 14, Hornick said she was “working on some ideas to alleviate” the space shortage in the courthouse, according to the meeting’s minutes.

Three weeks later, Hornick and Grafton County Administrator Julie Libby got the three commissioners to send a letter — an eviction notice, really — to bar association members, ordering them to have the “Lawyers’ Lounge cleaned out” by July 31.

The plan was floated last year — before Hornick took office — but after talking with the bar association, commissioners backed off.

What changed?

Commissioners Linda Lauer and Wendy Piper told me that Hornick made a strong case for the county to stop providing free workspace to defense lawyers.

For years, bar members provided pro bono legal services to Grafton residents. (From what I hear, many still do.) But unlike when the courthouse opened, the Grafton County Public Defenders Office now carries much of the indigent load.

Last year, the office’s five attorneys handled nearly 450 felony cases, along with hundreds of misdemeanor and juvenile cases.

Their office is in Orford — a 30-minute drive from the courthouse. Margaret Kettles, a 2018 Harvard Law School graduate, told me she works in the lounge (James Brooks, who heads the office, prefers to call it the “war room”) when she “needs to be away from everything.”

Charlotte Robinson, another 2018 Harvard Law School grad, brought up what I refer to as prosecutors’ home-field advantage. During court recesses, they can retreat to their offices behind locked doors and bullet-proof glass to meet with support staff and access legal materials.

“All the resources they need are right in the building,” Robinson said.

Meanwhile, Robinson and her colleagues are stockpiling quarters to feed the courthouse’s public copy machine.

Lauer, who chairs the commission, told me closing the lounge was a “last resort.”

I’m not so sure.

Commissioners might want to delve into why the county attorney’s office needs more space. Is crime so rampant in Grafton County that it needs 10 lawyers to do its bidding?

Cheshire County, which has 76,493 people compared with Grafton’s 89,786, gets by with seven prosecutors.

But what’s a few more prosecutors when you’re playing with house money?

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.