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Attorney General Gordon MacDonald confirmed as Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court in 4-1 vote

  • New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald in West Lebanon, N.H., on Feb. 13, 2018. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Monitor staff
Published: 1/22/2021 10:58:57 AM

New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald will be New Hampshire’s next chief justice of the state Supreme Court, after a 4-1 Executive Council vote Friday that confirmed his nomination.

After brief remarks, the four Republican councilors voted together to confirm. The body had met Thursday for day-long hearing in which councilors and members of the public sifted through his career and testified to his character. 

“I understand his integrity,” Councilor Ted Gatsas, a Manchester Republican, said before voting yes Friday. “I understand he's a man of his word.”

MacDonald, who was appointed Attorney General in 2017 and who stepped down from that role two weeks ago, has had a career that straddled the public and private legal spheres. A graduate of Dartmouth and Cornell Law School, MacDonald has worked as a health care litigator, as a clerk in the U.S.Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, as a legislative aide for Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey and state presidential campaign manager for Dan Quayle, and as the head of the Department of Justice for four years.

He will be the fifth state attorney general since 1901 to later serve on the state’s highest court – and the second to go directly from the Attorney General’s position to the court. In 1946, chief Justice Frank Kenison, moved directly from the attorney general post to the court, in 1946 as an associate justice; the other three had at least a five year buffer period after their service as attorney general. 

MacDonald has pledged to recuse himself as a justice from all civil and criminal cases that the Department of Justice was involved in while he was Attorney General. 

Democrats have objected to MacDonald's history working for Republican politicians and questioned whether that past would lead him to vote to erode reproductive rights while on the court. On Thursday, MacDonald declined to preview how he would rule in specific cases, citing longstanding tradition, but said he would respect U.S. Supreme Court precedent in all decisions, including Roe v. Wade.

On Friday, Concord Councilor Cinde Warmington, a Democrat, said that his testimony had made her concerned about how he would rule to protect abortion rights, which she said were at risk of being reduced by the U.S. Supreme Court. She argued that his record as Attorney General defending laws to tighten voting restrictions and to allow public funds to private religious schools had disqualified him. And she said his lack of experience serving as a judge made him an inappropriate choice.

“After hearing testimony yesterday, and asking my own questions of Attorney General MacDonald, I have substantial concerns about this nomination,” Warmington said. “Yesterday’s testimony and questioning raised serious questions about Gordon MacDonald’s commitment to the protections of our fundamental rights, including reproductive rights and voting rights, at a time when they are clearly threatened.”

The vote ends what had been an 18-month stretch in which New Hampshire's chief justice position has been left empty and its five-member Supreme Court had been operating with four members. Sununu had first nominated MacDonald in 2019, when the Executive Council was controlled by Democrats. But after that Council had voted MacDonald down, 3-2, the governor declined to bring forward future nominees, arguing that councilors had improperly used political considerations to oppose the appointment.

The position was left empty until after the November 2020 elections, when control of the Council was won back by Republicans and Sununu re-nominated MacDonald to the post.

In a statement after the vote, Sununu hailed the Council’s turnaround Friday.

“Attorney General Gordon MacDonald is one of the most highly qualified individuals ever to serve as chief justice and will lead New Hampshire’s highest court with distinction,” the governor said. 

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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