Committee denied subpoena request

Last modified: Friday, September 07, 2012
The House committee that's been investigating divorce cases and recommending that judges be impeached was denied its first request for subpoena power yesterday because it filed its request improperly.

And while the House Rules Committee said the subpoena request - for sealed court records in a child custody case - can be refiled, some committee members suggested they wouldn't approve it.

'We are on very thin ice,' Rep. Stephen Stepanek, an Amherst Republican, told members of the House Redress of Grievances Committee yesterday. 'And I'm very, very nervous about getting involved in an individual case.'

It was an interesting development between two House committees given priority status by Republican House Speaker Bill O'Brien. O'Brien is chairman of the rules committee, although he was absent yesterday. And he alone was responsible for reviving the redress committee, which had been dormant for nearly 150 years.

In their pitch to the rules committee, redress committee members said they want to subpoena a sealed report of a guardian ad litem to determine whether the custody rights of David Johnson of Londonderry were improperly restricted in his 12-year-old divorce case.

According to members of the redress committee, the contents of the sealed envelope prompted the judge handling the divorce case to limit Johnson to only supervised visits with his daughter.

Johnson filed a grievance with the committee in April 2011 alleging wrongdoing by the district court in Derry and the three judges, two marital masters and guardian ad litem involved in his case.

Last month, the redress committee voted 7-3 in favor of Johnson and recommended the Legislature investigate impeachment proceedings against the judges in the case. It's at least the third divorce case in which the redress committee has recommended impeachment investigations.

The committee also voted to ask the House Rules Committee for permission to subpoena the sealed envelope in Johnson's case.

But the committee did not put the request or the reasons for the request in writing, Stepanek said yesterday during the rules committee hearing. He and Rep. Lynne Ober, a Hudson Republican, also questioned why the committee was seeking more evidence in a petition it has already voted on.

Ober also shared Stepanek's concerns about the redress committee overstepping its bounds by trying to change the outcome of a single divorce and custody case. The mission of the redress committee, Ober said, is to determine whether there are recurring, systemic problems in the courts or state government that can be remedied with new legislation.

'The committee was never intended to try an individual case or individual cases,' she said.

Upset with those comments, Rep. Kevin Avard, a Nashua Republican who sits on the redress committee, questioned the rules committee's 'political courage' yesterday.

'If you have the power (to grant subpoenas), let's use it for justice and for the people,' Avard said. 'It takes backbone to do that. I have the backbone. And I'm standing up and speaking up.'

The rules committee voted 8-0 to dismiss the subpoena request without prejudice, meaning the committee can refile it for reconsideration. But Ober and others made it clear yesterday the request still faces a challenge given that the redress committee managed to rule on Johnson's petition without the contents of the sealed envelope.

'I would like testimony that would address why the committee would make a ruling (on the petition), file a report and then, if you were done, come back and ask to reopen the case,' Ober said.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)