Using an executive order, Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire has created a Judicial Selection Commission to screen and recommend judicial candidates. A similar commission established by then-Gov. John Lynch formally expired on Jan. 1, according to a Union Leader article.
The announcement by New Hampshire’s governor came at the same time that legislatures in Kansas and Tennessee have moved in the opposite direction, gutting the role of judicial screening panels.
In Kansas, the governor recently signed legislation to dismantle a long-used merit selection process, including such a panel, for naming Court of Appeals judges (see Gavel Grab), and in Tennessee, the legislature let die a bill to extend the life of a Judicial Nominating Commission (see Gavel Grab).
Hassan named the members of the 11-person commission. They include attorneys, Read more
New Hampshire Question 2, which would have increased the legislature’s control over the judiciary, failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to pass, reports a NHPR article.
The amendment, which supporters felt was necessary to clarify the legislature’s role in overseeing the courts’ practices, would have granted the legislature “concurrent power” to pass statutes governing New Hampshire’s court system.
Those who spoke out against the amendment argued that it violated the separation of powers. The amendment, they said, would give the legislature the power to impose its will on the judiciary.
In July, State Representative Lucy McVitty Weber wrote in a Concord Monitor commentary that the plan ”poses a grave danger to the long-established doctrine of separation of powers and the balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches,” reports Gavel Grab. Read more
A Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph editorial decried a ballot proposal to amend New Hampshire’s Constitution and give legislators ultimate authority in making rules for court administration violates the principle of separation of powers. The item is named CACR 26.
“CACR 26 is a bald-faced legislative power grab that supplants a fundamental tenet on which this nation was founded – the separation of governmental powers,” the editorial declared.
In noting strong arguments why voters should defeat the proposal, the editorial quoted from a commentary earlier this year by former New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice Joseph Nadeau and former Gov. Steve Merrill.
“The court is not a state agency. It is a branch of government. By the language of the New Hampshire Constitution, the legislative branch is political; the judicial branch is not. We value an independent political branch, and we value an independent judicial branch,” they wrote. “Everyone, nevertheless, should be concerned about a legislative takeover of the courts, because political control of the judiciary is just not in the public interest.”
Budget cuts continue to interfere with the workings of courts around the nation and their ability to deliver justice.
The state of New Hampshire has started a $275, 000 construction project to improve the Rockingham County courthouse. According to a Seacoast Online article, the project includes adding a heated sidewalk system to melt snow and ice and fixing curbs and sidewalks to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The project, coming in right after judicial system budget cuts resulted in layoffs, reduced judge time and periodic closings of clerk’s offices, has raised concerns among members of the court.
“It’s hard to imagine that the court has reduced jury trials and shut clerks’ offices to the public, while another arm of the state has money to heat sidewalks in wintry New Hampshire,” said Rockingham County Attorney James Reams. Reams has already had his personnel budget cut by one staff member and his operations budget reduced by 20 percent this year.
In California, six more courtrooms in San Mateo county are slated to close if the state does not restore funding by 2013. Over the last five years, statewide trial court budgets have been cut by more than one billion dollars. According to an Almanac Online article, the county Superior Court has already cut its workforce by 30 percent, consolidated courts and reduced court clerk’s public availability.
“Trial Courts should not be dismantled, justice should not be rationed and communities should not be denied a rational, accessible and credible means to resolve disputes,” said Superior Court Presiding Judge Beth Labson Freeman in a written statement.
In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:
- In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, legal scholar Carl Tobias responds to a recent Times article that argued President Obama has made less of a mark on the federal bench than expected. Tobias claims the article exaggerated the role played by Democrats in what he calls a “glacial” confirmation pace.
- Chief Justice William Waller, Jr. of the Mississippi supreme court recently visited the Exchange Club of Cleveland, the Bolivar Commercial reported. Waller spoke about the history of the court and explained how the justices decide which cases to hear.
- According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and her sister, former state senator Janine Orie, are to be tried together. The two face charges of public corruption.
- In response to recent remarks made by Lubbock County, Texas Judge Tom Head, the state Democratic Party chief has called for his resignation, CNN reported.
- Writing for the Concord Monitor, Chairman of the New Hampshire Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC) Robert Wilson explains the inner workings of the state’s JCC.
Once again, state legislators in New Hampshire have raised the specter of impeaching judges. A grievance committee voted 8-2 this week to investigate impeachment proceedings against three judges after a state Senate candidate complained about their handling of a custody dispute with his former wife, the Concord Monitor reported.
Bill Raftery of the National Center for State Courts, a JAS partner group, spotlighted the impeachment bid in the Gavel to Gavel blog that he writes. His post was headlined, “NH House committee advances plans to impeach judges for their decisions in domestic relations cases; 4th time in 5 years NH judges threatened with removal from office over custody or divorce case decisions.”
The latest action was taken by the House Redress of Grievances Committee, after receiving a petition from Republican candidate Joshua Youssef. The Concord Monitor article was entitled, “Senate candidate refights custody case in House.”
Last year in New Hampshire, a controversy over whether to impeach a family-law judicial officer was parlayed by legislators into a blank check to investigate all state trial judges.
“Almost every American, liberal and conservative, has been angered by particular legal rulings, but that’s because we ask courts to settle tough legal disputes. It is reckless to threaten judges with ouster simply because we don’t like a particular decision,” JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg cautioned in 2010, in a statement quoted by The Washington Post (see Gavel Grab).
Over objections from court officials, the New Hampshire House passed a late-hour bill to decentralize lower courts and return their control and management to local judges, just a year after creating the unified circuit court.
The House passed the measure on a 235-95 vote, but the legislation faces a more difficult road in the state Senate, according to a Concord Monitor article.
Only last week, New Hampshire Chief Justice Linda Dalianis testified before a legislative committee that the proposed switch would jeopardize $2.3 million in savings realized during the past 10 months, after the legislature had combined district, family and probate courts into a centrally managed, single circuit court system (see Gavel Grab).
Republican Rep. Robert Rowe, a retired judge, advocated the change. It was requested by judges who told him they were prevented from supervising and disciplining staff at their courts, he said.
New Hampshire court officials are strongly opposing a late-hour bill in the legislature to decentralize lower courts and return their control and management to local judges.
New Hampshire Chief Justice Linda Dalianis testified before a legislative committee that the proposed switch would jeopardize $2.3 million in savings realized during the past 10 months, after the legislature had combined district, family and probate courts into a centrally managed, single circuit court system.
The proposal would return New Hampshire to a “balkanized” system, she said, according to a Concord Monitor article.
“We know change is not easy and that some people will be unhappy, but that is certainly no reason to suddenly abandon innovation, ignore the demonstrated success of the new system and turn back the clock, which is what this legislation would do,” Edwin W. Kelly, administrative judge of the circuit court, wrote in a Concord Monitor op-ed.
New Hampshire’s House Judiciary Committee has rejected possible impeachment of a marital master, a court officer who handles family court cases, and also possible impeachment proceedings of any Superior Court justices.
That report comes from Gavel to Gavel, a state legislative roundup from the National Center for State Courts, a JAS partner group. The House Judiciary Committee approved a report on the issues after the state House had voted more than a year ago to let the panel investigate (see Gavel Grab).
The recent Judiciary Committee report found that the targeted marital master was “an at-will employee under the supervision of the Judicial Branch and not subject to impeachment as an officer,” according to Gavel to Gavel.
The same report found that the House’s authorization in HR 7 to investigate any justice of the Superor Court was vague and determined “lack of direction would result in a fruitless Read more
During this session, New Hampshire legislators have taken aim at the state’s judiciary with little success so far, through proposals to severely limit the power of the courts or to change their face.
One bill aimed to re-establish a legislative check-and-balance over the courts that was in place before 1966, while another would have required lawyers to reach the age of 60 before serving on the bench.
Rep. Joshua Davenport was a primary Republican sponsor of the bill intended to “restore legislative control over the judiciary,” according to an article in the Nashua Telegraph. While the bill was killed, a sister version has survived. It would study what revisions to the law are necessary if the Supreme Court was abolished as a constitutional court.
A proposed constitutional amendment to reduce authority of the state Supreme Court failed. CACR 28 would have assigned to the legislature, instead of the Supreme Court, judicial review of the constitutional of laws enacted by the legislature. The proposal did not survive.
A proposal for a constitutional amendment that would limit judges to five-year, renewable terms still is alive. In addition, the proposal would let the governor and Executive Council remove judges who did not “behave well.”
To read other Gavel Grab reports on the New Hampshire legislation, click here.