State’s Supreme Court returns to Senate chambers for bicentennial celebration

  • New Hampshire Supreme Court justices hear oral arguments in the Senate chambers of the State House on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Supreme Court justices hear oral arguments in the Senate chambers of the State House on Tuesday in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/8/2019 5:42:14 PM

It’s common for the state’s Supreme Court to take the show on the road. But on Tuesday, the court heard arguments somewhere it hadn’t been in decades – its original home turf in the state Senate chambers.

Justices heard oral arguments in the newly-renovated Senate chamber as part of the building’s bicentennial celebration.

When the State House first opened, the court shared the chamber with the Senate for some time. That shared history is displayed in the newly-renovated chamber’s decor with scales of justice bordering the ceiling.

The event meant the Senate chambers briefly operated under Supreme Court rules, creating a temporary gun-free-zone while court was in session and visitors were searched prior to entering. While the House has banned guns in Representatives Hall, the Senate has no rule on weapons.

The session also gave legislators the chance to see how their laws can be picked apart and disputed by lawyers and judges.

“It is my experience that they (the lawyers) won’t get very far until the justices start peppering them with questions,” said retired Supreme Court Justice Carol Ann Conboy, who moderated the event. “Don’t assume it’s rude or unseemly; that’s just the way it goes.”

The case, a property tax dispute involving a disabled veteran who purchased a summer camp on Lake Winnisquam in Belmont in 1998 and replaced it with a year-round home in 2007, provided plenty of fodder for attorneys and justices to spar over.

Louis Nordle used a Veterans Administration grant to renovate his home to accommodate his wheelchair in 2015 after his disabilities worsened and later applied for a tax exemption. The town said no, but that decision was reversed on appeal, prompting the town to turn to the high court.

At issue was a single word in RSA 72:36-a, which allows for tax exemptions for certain disabled veterans who own specially adapted homes “acquired” with the assistance of the Veterans Administration.

The town’s attorney argued that Nordle acquired the home in 1998 without VA help, and that the law does not allow an exemption for those who adapt their homes later. Nordle’s attorney argued that “acquire” has a broader meaning.

“An employer acquires an employee, a reader acquires book from library,” said attorney Joshua Gordon, who represented Nordle.

He argued that Nordle didn’t “acquire” a specially adapted home until he made the 2015 renovations with help from the VA. When Chief Justice Robert Lynn asked him whether lawmakers could have used words like “renovations” if they wanted to cover such scenarios, Gordon responded with a question of his own.

“If you were a legislator and you meant just purchase, wouldn’t you just say purchase?” he said.

Complicating matters was the fact that the law, which was enacted decades ago, had never gone before the Supreme Court, promoting justices to ask if it would be difficult to make assumptions of legislator’s attempts.

Lynn called the case an example of one of the court’s fundamental duties: determining how the law applies to situations that lawmakers may not have envisioned. And he said it was a terrific experience to be part of the State House history.

For state Sen. Ruth Ward of Stoddard, the session was a reminder of the importance of being precise when crafting laws.

“It’s pretty interesting how they have to justify their opinions,” she said.

The court also will hold a special session in the House chambers in June.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309 or candrews@cmonitor.com.)

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