Trailblazer role a trial for Dalianis

by Kay Fukunaga | 5/15/02 5:00am

"There were people on the New Hampshire Superior Court when I was appointed who would not talk to me, not even to say 'hello,'" said Justice Linda Dalianis, who subsequently became the first woman to serve on the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Speaking at the annual spring dinner of the Women's Network of the Upper Valley to an attentive audience, Dalianis talked of the difficulties that underlie the judicial profession, citing a case in which the jury convicted an individual on charges of child molestation.

"I didn't believe that he did it," Dalianis said. "But these were very serious charges and the jury convicted him. That meant I had to sentence him to spending most of the rest of his life behind bars. In fact, he still is in prison."

In order to make such difficult sentences, Dalianis emphasized the need for disengaging oneself from personal opinions.

Along with the typical burdens that most judges face, Dalianis also found herself dealing with many other obstacles as a result of being a woman at the forefront of her profession.

"I felt that everything I did was subject to criticism and that if I really messed up, another woman would not be appointed for an indefinite period of time," Dalianis said.

This pressure weighed on her until she eventually came to realize that, "No matter what I do, I will be criticized and no matter how hard I try to do what I do well, some people will be dissatisfied."

Instead, Dalianis simply tries to do her job in the best way that she can while accepting her limitations.

"I've always had the opinion that if you approach things seriously and treat other people with respect, they will treat you likewise," she said.

Yet even early on, she was aware of the fact that no matter how seriously she approached some things, there were definite gender barriers that restricted her aspirations.

Dalianis said that her first exposure came when she was about nine. "I decided that I wanted to become a veterinarian," she said.

She sent away to veterinary schools, hoping to learn more about the veterinary profession, only to discover that they did not accept women.

This was quite a disappointment to the nine-year-old girl, but instead of dwelling on her finding, Dalianis learned to accept and move on.

Not wanting to have to rely on anyone for financial support, Dalianis became the first person in her family to attend college.

When she entered law school, Dalianis attended classes at night and worked at a "fancy Boston law firm" as a typist by day in order to help finance her education.

Despite the strides she has made since then, ascending to the New Hampshire Supreme Court in April 2000, Dalianis still recalls many of the obstacles she encountered early on.

"I often, in the early days, had trouble convincing people I was a judge. I once got yelled at for parking in the judge parking stall," she said with a laugh.

Though she has now earned wide recognition, Dalianis believes that being "the most powerful woman in New Hampshire" -- as described by Network Publications -- is not without a great deal of challenges.

Referring to a clause in the New Hampshire Constitution, which cites the need for judges to be "as impartial as the lot of humanity will admit," Dalianis describes how aspiring to attain this ideal often results in feelings of great isolation.

"You have to retreat and remain there. It's very isolating," she said. "Your personal life is very restricted. As a judge, you are not expected to have clay feet. Every day, we are called to make decisions and none of these are under happy circumstances."

Despite the tradeoffs, Dalianis referred to the sense of satisfaction that being a judge brings, making reference to a case in which a young child was killed at the hands of an individual under the influence who was a repeat offender.

As a judge, she was able to make the decision that enabled the state to prosecute the individual for manslaughter instead of negligent homicide. Ultimately, it was this decision which opened the door for stricter sentences for repeat violators driving under the influence.

"None of it is easy, but there is personal satisfaction in knowing you played a small role in the administration of justice," Dalianis said.