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Court Offers a Civics Lesson to Remember in New Hampshire

An annual “On the Road” event brought the New Hampshire State Supreme Court and a unique lesson on the judicial branch to Concord High School.  The five justices started their day listening to oral arguments in two actual cases and questioning attorneys, then took questions from the student audience.

Students took the opportunity to ask the justice’s about their paths to the bench and the particulars of how judges make decisions.  The two female justices took a question on whether or not they had ever felt impeded by sexism during their careers.  Justice Carol Conboy noted that earlier in her career, she felt people assumed that male lawyers were competent until proven incompetent whereas female lawyers had to prove competency.

While the justices said they could not answer questions about the specific cases, attorneys for both sides fielded questions from the audience.

The Concord Monitor covered the event and interviewed several students about the experience.  A senior from Bow High School commented that it was a less formal atmosphere than she had expected and an overall positive learning experience.  She is quoted saying “I thought it was cool to relate to it…”

Justice at Stake also recognizes the importance of civics education and opportunities to promote awareness of the judicial branch.  JAS has created a program titled Our Courts America with the new website, ourcourts.org to help people understand the role of the courts and the importance of supporting them.  Resources will be provided to help judges, lawyers, and community leaders have access to the tools needed for organizing civic education programs.

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Funding Cuts Blamed for ‘Justice Delayed’ in New Hampshire County

When it comes to a local county Superior Court’s ranking near the bottom in New Hampshire for the time it takes to resolve a criminal case, the culprit is court funding cutbacks from the state capital, a Keene (N.H.) Sentinel editorial asserts. 

“[T]he primary reason for the delay is simple: money. Because of state budget cutbacks in the past several years, the Superior Court is operating with too few judges,” the editorial states in paraphrasing Superior Court Tina L. Nadeau, who discussed the issue for a recent news article published in the same newspaper.

“The cases of Cheshire County’s criminals, alleged or otherwise, are languishing because of a lack of funding from Concord, just as the region’s mental health services, care for the elderly and disabled, and services for children have suffered during the same time,” the editorial concludes.

The editorial is headlined, “Justice Delayed.” Across the country, budget constraints have caused similar problems in numerous counties and cities. If you have a story about why court funding matters, share it with us here: http://courtfundingmatters.com/

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New Hampshire Governor Creates Judicial Selection Commission

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

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New Hampshire Legislature Won’t Get Control of Courts

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

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‘No’ Vote Urged on New Hampshire Court Rule-Making Proposal

A plan to amend New Hampshire’s Constitution and give legislators ultimate authority in making rules for court administration violates the principle of separation of powers and should be rejected by voters this fall, two prominent critics argue.

Former New Hampshire Gov. Stephen Merrill, a Republican, and former state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Nadeau wrote a commentary in The Keene Sentinel that was strongly critical of the proposal:

“What makes this legislative proposal troublesome and extreme is it violates a fundamental principle of constitutional democracy; the three branches of government ought to be separate and independent. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted, ‘The framers of the Constitution were so clear in the federalist papers and elsewhere that they felt an independent judiciary was critical to the success of the nation.’ We agree.

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Impeachment in the Air in New Hampshire, Again

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).

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Vote Would Decentralize Lower New Hampshire Courts

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.

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New Hampshire Judges Oppose Decentralizing Lower Courts

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.

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New Hampshire Legislators Rule Out Impeachment

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

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In New Hampshire, a Debate Over Weakening the Courts

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.

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