Sununu says he will support the state’s Judicial Selection Commission

Monitor staff
Published: 10/25/2016 11:51:07 PM

Republican candidate for governor Chris Sununu said he would continue the New Hampshire Judicial Selection Commission if elected, after more 100 lawyers and judges sent him an open letter asking him to clarify his position last week.

“I will absolutely be using a judicial selection commission,” Sununu said in an interview Monday. “I’m going to make sure it’s a bipartisan group that understands the needs of the state.”

Established by former Governor Jeanne Shaheen in 2000, the commission is a bipartisan group of lawyers, law enforcement officials and legal advocates appointed by each governor for three years. Their job is to screen candidates for judges, from the state’s circuit court all the way up to the state Supreme Court justices. Candidates are ultimately voted on by the governor and Executive Council.

The next governor could appoint as many as three new judges to the state’s five-member Supreme Court.

“What the commission does that a governor can’t effectively do is get untapped judicial talent,” said Manchester attorney Katherine Hanna, a former commission chairwoman.

Hanna said the process breaks down barriers, encouraging attorneys of all different backgrounds to apply to be judges. She added that the candidates are chosen on merit, rather than political connections.

“They feel they can apply and have the chance to become a judge, even if they don’t know a governor,” she said.

While three Democratic governors have used the system, Republican Governor Craig Benson abolished the commission during his two-year term from 2003 to 2005. Benson instead appointed a three-person committee comprised of his legal counsel, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a Republican state senator.

After Sununu did not respond to a recent New Hampshire Bar Association questionnaire asking about the commission, Republican, Democrat and independent attorneys penned a letter last Friday, asking Sununu whether he would continue in the tradition of the last two governors.

Sununu’s Democratic opponent, Colin Van Ostern, said he would use the commission in December 2015.

“The stakes for our judicial system are especially high this year because the next governor will likely appoint three justices – a majority – to our Supreme Court,” the attorneys wrote. “We believe in continuing a bipartisan, independent process for selecting judges in the best way to ensure integrity, quality and fairness of the New Hampshire judiciary.”

On Monday, Sununu said he does not respond to every questionnaire he gets.

Sununu added he would expand the commission by reaching out to local county attorneys and prosecutors around the state to get their input about circuit and superior court judges.

“I will take it to the next level and address concerns I’ve heard from local communities,” he said. “It’s a process of making sure we get a good group.”

In an August editorial board meeting with the Monitor, Sununu called the judicial selection commission “a select group of political favorites, if you will, that have some experience in law,” and sounded less sure about keeping the organization intact.

“I may choose to keep the judicial selection commission in place in some facet, but they will not be my only resource in how I choose judges,” he said. “I would look to my advisors, I would look to the local communities, I would look to the legislature and I would get the input from a variety of folks, a much bigger swath of people.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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