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'House, courts at odds'

Last modified: 5/13/2012 12:00:00 AM
Last-minute legislation co-authored by House Speaker Bill O'Brien has court officials predicting that, if passed, the state's district, probate and family courts will revert to costly, inconsistent "fiefdoms."

The amendment would return control and management of the lower courts to the judges sitting in them and no longer leave it to a central office in Concord. Court officials told an unsympathetic House Judiciary Committee last week that the move would reverse decades of improvements that have made the lower courts more uniform and efficient.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Dalianis testified that the switch would jeopardize the $2.3 million savings realized in just the last 10 months thanks to greater central control. Retired district court Judge Michael Sullivan, who still hears cases, called the proposal "absurd" when he testified and suggested the change would return the state to a "balkanized" system.

Amherst Rep. Robert Rowe, who chairs the committee and co-authored the amendment, had a pretty straightforward response to the court's claim when reached Friday.

"That is wrong," Rowe said. "That is a bold-faced lie."

Well then.

The courts have, for decades, been moving toward a more uniform and consistent operation so that going to one court is very similar to going to another. Last year, the Legislature went a step further and combined the district, family and probate courts into a single, centrally-managed circuit court system.

Calls to the state's 32 individual circuit courts are fielded through a central phone bank, and the courts are now supervised by two administrative judges, not the sitting judges.

The call center takes nearly 1,500 calls a day, meaning staff at the individual courts are spending less time on the phone and more time processing cases in a timely manner. Other changes have streamlined the way motor vehicle cases are handled so judges have more time for other matters.

Court officials are more than a little upset with the proposed change and its late unveiling.

"I am disappointed that a proposal that would effectively dismantle circuit court management has not been the subject of open discussions between us prior to its submission," Dalianis told the committee. "I believe that there is no justification for this amendment, and I can think of no reason for refusing to discuss it with us."

Rowe disputed the court's dire predictions. He justified both the amendment and its timing.

Rowe also said he provided the proposed amendment to court officials before last week but did not hear back from them. Court officials have disagreed with that.

Rowe said he and O'Brien had heard complaints about the increasingly centralized system from circuit court judges and police prosecutors, whom he declined to name. He said the judges especially fear retaliation from supervisors if identified.

Their gripe, Rowe said, is that they no longer have any authority in their courthouses beyond adjudicating cases.

"(A judge) can't supervise or discipline court personnel that are not performing his or her job," Rowe said, reiterating what he said judges have told

him. "(The judge) is basically told when to the turn the lights on and when to the turns lights out. Everything is centrally controlled from Concord, and that is bad."

Rowe said he introduced the amendment last week, just days before the Legislature concludes its session, because that is when the complaints reached him. When judges got no satisfaction from their court supervisors, they come to lawmakers, he said.

Court officials have said they've received no complaints from judges about the new circuit court system.

Rowe said the change would not remove the existing judges administering the circuit court. Instead, Judge Ed Kelly, who heads the court, and Judge David King, who serves as his deputy, would strictly hear cases.

The administration would be left the chief justice, who would be allowed to appoint a non-judge administrator. But the courthouses would be managed by a presiding judge assigned there.

Rowe said there is no way Kelly or King, sitting centrally, can know what sorts of problems the circuit court in Colebrook or Nashua are facing. He said judges have told him that when clerks in the courthouse fail to do their work or are rude to the public, they can do nothing about it.

"This will not, not, result in any change in terms of the circuit court," Rowe said. "It won't cost any money. All it does is give the local judge a little more say in managing the staff. That is all it does."

He said the setup now would be like having the chief executive officer of a major corporation managing each local office. "Central management can be carried too far, and here it was carried too far."

That characterization of the amendment couldn't be more different from how the court sees it.

Dalianis imagined individual judges refusing to participate in the call center, meaning their staff would have to take calls and fall behind in processing cases. What if a judge refused to use standardized forms and procedures or would not work with their regional manager? The court is working to make court records available online. Dalianis told the committee an individual judge could refuse to participate and leave a hole in the records.

And King told the committee he recalled his days as a lawyer in Coos County, before the courts were centrally managed. "More than once I went to a district court to seek an attachment only to learn that the judge had gone home for the day and I would be told to come back another day," he said.

The amendment will go to the full House on Tuesday.

 What's a prison worth?


Lawmakers and the city of Laconia may be a bit closer to answering that question and closing a deal on the former Laconia prison and the 230 acres that surround it.

Last month, Laconia offered the state $2.16 million for the property, which sits on Lake Winnisquam and overlooks Opechee Bay. The offer matched the state's own appraisal, but it was about $8 million less than current law says the state can accept.

Thursday, the Senate Capital Budget Committee passed an amendment from its chairman, Sen. David Boutin, a Hooksett Republican, that would give the state some wiggle room.

Boutin's amendment would put the sale in the hands of the Legislature's Long Range Capital Planning and Utilization Committee, which can accept fair market value for the property.

The full Senate will vote on Boutin's amendment Wednesday. If it clears the Legislature and governor, there would be a new appraisal, and negotiations between the committee and the city could begin.

The state has previously decided that it did not want to keep the property or the aging prison buildings for itself.

City officials noted that the site contains hazardous waste that decreases the property's value. Laconia officials have also reminded that state that the city, unlike a private developer or the state, is eligible for federal money to clean up that waste.

Laconia City Councilor Matt Lahey, who has led the effort to find a new use for the prison, said he was pleased with the committee's actions. It "unties" the Legislature's hand on the sale, he said.

 Tax credits, abortions


These two unlikely bedfellows will meet up again in the House Tuesday, but their future doesn't look good.

They began 2012 single. The Senate passed a bill that increased the amount of research and development tax credits a business could claim from $1 million a year to $2 million. The House passed a bill that required women to wait 24 hours between scheduling an abortion and having the procedure.

The two were then joined in something of a forced marriage. The House, angry that the Senate had sidelined the 24-hour wait, retaliated by putting reviving the wait and putting it in the Senate's high-priority tax credit bill.

Alas, the two were divorced last week when a House committee took the 24-hour wait out of the tax credit bill. The committee also removed the Senate's increase in the tax credit because it would mean a decrease in the general fund.

The only thing left behind was a measure that will make the tax credit permanent.

That leaves the amended bill that goes to the House floor Wednesday with little to please either the House or Senate.

Rep. Dan McGuire, an Epsom Republican, said he will ask the House to return the 24-hour wait to the bill. If he succeeds, we're not convinced the Senate will want it back.

House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt is selling the amended version - no wait for abortions, no increase in tax credits, this way:

"It is critical for job creation that New Hampshire is a haven for entrepreneurs and inventors," read his statement. "It is for these reasons that we applaud the House Finance Committee for making the research and development tax credit permanent. While we took a different approach from the Senate, keeping the tax credit at its current level and making it permanent sends a powerful and stabilizing message that we are open for business and innovation."

 A new pledge?


Executive Council candidate Colin Van Ostern of Concord is asking gubernatorial candidates to take a different pledge. He wants assurances the next governor will continue to use the Judicial Selection Commission to select judges.

Van Ostern, a Democrat, is seeking the seat currently held by Republican Dan St. Hilaire, who has not said whether he will seek reelection.

Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen started it in 2000. Her successor, Republican Craig Benson, dropped it. Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, revived it in 2005 and has used the commission's lawyers, law enforcement officials and citizens to help him choose judges.

The commission takes applications for judicial openings, interviews candidates, checks references and forwards its top choices to the governor. Lynch most recently used the commission to nominate lawyer Jim Bassett of Canterbury to the state Supreme Court.

His confirmation hearing will be held Friday before the Executive Council.

"I've heard from voters across New Hampshire who are deeply concerned by the ideological agenda in Concord this past year that has distracted our state government from focusing its energy on job-creation," Van Ostern said in a statement. "New Hampshire voters are concerned that our next governor might nominate judges to further this partisan ideological agenda when he or she should be choosing the best, most qualified judicial candidates."

We circulated Van Ostern's challenge to the gubernatorial candidates midday Friday.

We heard back from Democrats Maggie Hassan Jackie Cilley and Republican Kevin Smith by deadline.

"New Hampshire works best when we work across party lines to get things done," wrote Hassan. "Like Govs. Lynch and Shaheen, I would establish an independent and volunteer Judicial Selection Commission so we can attract judges based on their qualifications and talent and take the politics out of the process."

Cilley signed on too.

"I am happy to commit to maintaining the Judicial Selection Committee and look forward, as New Hampshire's next governor, to working with Colin and his fellow members of the Executive Council to guarantee that only the most qualified and fair-minded judges join New Hampshire's bench," she said via email.

Smith had a different view:

"Our unique system, the Executive Council acting as a check on the governor's nominees, has worked extremely well over the past two centuries," he said by email. "While the actions by two recent governors to expand the review process (to the commission) may have provided some broader review, both governors also determined to have their commission dominated by the legal profession.

"This is like the fox guarding the chicken coop as it is lawyers selecting the judges that they argue in front of," Smith said. He added that he would not cede his authority to nominate judges to a commission to give himself "political cover."

We'll let you know when we catch up with Republican Ovide Lamontagne.

 Governor's race


Endorsements are rolling in.

Hassan picked up the backing of Kathy Sullivan, former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, and EMILY's List, a national group that works to elect pro-choice Democrats to office.

Cilley bagged the support of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 2320.

Smith scored a coup with the endorsement of Republican Rep. Ken Weyler of Kingston, chairman of the House Finance Committee.

Lamontagne matched that with the double support of former governor and U.S. senator. Judd Gregg and his wife Kathy.

• In other news, Lamontagne wasn't impressed with President Obama's new support for same-sex marriage. Obama said his thinking has evolved on this issue. To Lamontagne's thinking, this new position is "pure politics," he said. To keep up with his campaign, go to ovide2012.com.

• Hassan launched her Innovate New Hampshire Tour last week as a way to meet with the state's business leaders. You can follow the tour at innovatenewhampshire.com

• Cilley launched her campaign website: jackiecilley.com.

• Smith is doing 14 town hall visits in eight weeks. He's using the stops to talk about his plan for the future of New Hampshire. He's also posted it on his website, kevinsmithforgovernor.com.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or atimmins@cmonitor.com. Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)


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