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New Hampshire Views: Laughton out, but ‘felon’ candidate law in limbo

At first blush, you might think we know everything we need to know about the long-running soap opera surrounding Stacie Laughton’s on-again, off-again bid to represent Nashua in the New Hampshire House.

Nov. 6: Elected as one of three Democrats to represent Ward 4.

Nov. 29: Decides not to serve after it is learned state law appears to prohibit convicted felons with uncompleted sentences from holding state office.

Dec. 28: Formally declares her candidacy for a special election called to fill the very vacancy she created.

Jan. 2: Withdraws her name from consideration, creating a Feb. 19 showdown between Democrat Pam Brown and Republican Elizabeth Van Twuyver for the seat.

End of story? Not so fast.

That’s because left unresolved in this discombobulation of democracy is a final interpretation of the state law that started Laughton down this crooked path in the first place. Namely, can someone serving a suspended sentence for a felony conviction run or hold public office?

Or more specifically, as it relates to RSA 607-A:2, I, what constitutes “final discharge” of a sentence?

Here’s what we know:

Four years ago, the then-Laconia resident pleaded guilty to three charges related to credit card fraud in Belknap County Superior Court. She served four months in jail on one of them and received two sentences, each suspended, for 10 years on the other two.

So do her twin suspended sentences disqualify her from running and serving in public office under the language of the statute, which states “a person sentenced for a felony, from the time of his sentence until his final discharge, may not . . . become a candidate for or hold public office” in the state?

Ironically, Laughton’s withdrawal from the special election last week nixed an opportunity to resolve that question once and for all.

In a Dec. 31 letter to Secretary of State William Gardner, Attorney General Michael Delaney offered his opinion that Laughton’s sentences have not been “finally discharged” under state law.

But Delaney explicitly left that final determination up to the Ballot Law Commission, a five-member body charged with deciding whether candidates meet the criteria to hold public office.

In fact, the commission was scheduled to meet Jan. 4 to hear two complaints filed against Laughton by Nashua residents, who challenged her eligibility to run in the special election. But that all became moot when Laughton formally withdrew her candidacy two days before the commission was scheduled to meet, thereby keeping the legal meaning of “discharge” in limbo – not just for Laughton, but for any future candidates.

We urge state officials to put an end to this confusion by enforcing the law, amending it or throwing it out altogether. The state manual that details qualifications for candidates doesn’t even mention the law that tripped up Laughton.

Fortunately, it appears at least one piece of legislation may address this issue in the new legislative session. Republican Rep. Stella Tremblay of Auburn is filing legislation that would require a disclosure statement by individuals seeking their party’s nomination for public office. Two other bills are in the works that deal with “determining qualifications of voters” and “disqualification of candidates.”

State lawmakers would be wise to resolve this issue once and for all prior to the 2014 election.

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