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Judges’ Ex-Wives Plan Federal Suit

April 12, 2000

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) _ Caroline Douglas has complained for years that she couldn’t get a fair shake in her divorce case because her ex-husband, former state Supreme Court Justice Chuck Douglas, knew all the judges in New Hampshire.

All of the sudden, Mrs. Douglas might get people to listen.

Late last month, a state Supreme Court justice was accused of trying to influence his colleagues in his own divorce case. That has set off a crisis that threatens to bring down the state’s highest court.

As for Mrs. Douglas, she and three other ex-wives of judges plan to file a federal lawsuit alleging that their they were deprived of their rights because of their husbands’ connections.

``I think for a lot of reasons judges’ wives have been quiet. They didn’t want to do anything because they understand what a big obstacle it is. But they also understand that it is wrong,″ Mrs. Douglas, a lawyer, told the Concord Monitor.

The crisis erupted two weeks ago, when Supreme Court Justice Stephen Thayer resigned after being accused of trying to intervene in two cases in which he had an interest. Among other things, he was accused of trying to influence the assignment of judges to hear his divorce case.

The state attorney general accused the entire court of routinely letting justices comment on cases from which they had disqualified themselves. On Thursday, the New Hampshire House is planning to vote on whether to launch an investigation into possible impeachable offenses involving three of the remaining four justices.

State Rep. Fran Wendelboe said the judges’ ex-wives are not alone. Several former wives of prominent lawyers have complained to her about unfair treatment in their divorces, Wendelboe said, and she has asked the House to investigate the divorces of other judges.

The women joining Mrs. Douglas in the lawsuit so far: Carolyn D’Entremont Sullivan, who was married to Concord District Judge Michael Sullivan; Betsy Millard, who was married to Superior Court Judge Robert Morrill; and Kathleen Thornton, who was married to Derry District Judge Edward Thornton.

Thayer’s divorce is still being appealed, so Judith Thayer does not plan to join the lawsuit.

Calls to Judges Thornton, Millard and Sullivan seeking comment Wednesday were not immediately returned. Chuck Douglas said, ``When I see a suit, then I’ll comment.″

The ex-wives plan to argue they were unable to get competent lawyers because of who their husbands were and knew. They also say judges summarily dismissed their motions and sealed or sometimes mysteriously reassigned the cases.

Meanwhile, they say, their husbands’ high-powered lawyers got judgments that left the wives with insufficient child support or no health insurance, and even got Mrs. Douglas and Mrs. Thayer evicted from their homes.

Mrs. Douglas claimed from the outset that she could not get a fair trial in New Hampshire, where her husband, a one-term congressman, remains influential in Republican politics.

She tried to have the trial moved to Vermont or another neutral forum, but both the state and U.S. Supreme courts refused. Her U.S. Supreme Court petition originally landed on the desk of Justice David Souter, a former colleague of her husband’s on the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Thornton said her lawyer during her 1992 divorce failed to research her husband’s assets. She also discovered later that the lawyer had argued cases before her husband a couple of weeks before her divorce trial.

Albert Scherr, an associate dean at Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, said the ex-wives’ case will be tough to prove.

``It’s not enough that they say they were discriminated against. They’re going to have to show they were, that if their former spouses weren’t judges, their divorces would have come out differently,″ he said.

``I doubt they’ll be able to get any judge to say, `I helped my fellow justice out because he’s a buddy of mine.‴

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