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January 20. 2013 9:53PM

Judicial Conduct Committee dismisses complaint against judge with warning

The committee that disciplines judges dismissed a complaint with a warning against Circuit Court Judge John J. Coughlin for telling a Salem woman he would dismiss charges against her because no complaint was filed with the court when she was arraigned, then rescheduling the arraignment instead.

The Judicial Conduct Committee did not find that any of the complaints filed by Judith Tompson violated the Code of Judicial Conduct regarding his actions sitting in Salem District Court on Dec. 27, 2011.

"However, the committee remains concerned that, taken as a whole, (Coughlin's) actions .... may convey to members of the public such as Ms. Tompson something less than a uniform and impartial application of the law," the committee wrote.

"The committee cautions that better practice under the circumstances at issue would have been for you to have acted in a manner consistent with your representation to Ms. Tompson dismissing these complaints without prejudice after the session had concluded without the complaints having been properly filed by the Rockingham County Sheriff's Department or to have explained in writing your reasons for reversing your announced decision to dismiss the complaints."

The sheriff's department brought the three complaints against Tompson alleging resisting arrest, reckless operation, and disobeying a police officer after the arraignments had been concluded that day and Tompson had left the courthouse. The charges were ultimately dismissed in February 2012.

The committee singled out Coughlin for asking the prosecutor and clerk's office to contact the sheriff's department to ask about the complaints, telling Tompson he would dismiss the complaints absent a timely response, and instead directing the arraignment be rescheduled.

The committee was also concerned that Coughlin's response "failed to consider that your actions, under an objective standard, might reasonably cause a person to question the whole impartiality of the court and potentially impact the reputation of the judiciary as a whole. The complaint is therefore dismissed with the issuance of the within warning," the committee wrote on Dec. 18, 2012. The complaint was made public last week after the 30-day period allowed for Coughlin to seek reconsideration.

In his response to the committee, Coughlin said he did indicate to Tompson he would dismiss the charge, but then reconsidered "based upon a reasonable and substantiated exercise of my discretion."

When asked for comment Friday, Coughlin provided a prepared statement that said: "I accept the feedback and better practice recommendation of the committee.

"I intend to continue my public service to the people of New Hampshire and to those who appear before me in Derry District Court."

Judge Edwin Kelly, administrative judge of the Circuit Court, said JCC complaints can be dismissed with or without warnings to the judge. Such warnings have no practical impact on judges, who are appointed to age 70 in New Hampshire.

"I assume it will be kept on file with the JCC. Judges take these kinds of complaints very seriously. I'm sure Judge Coughlin will take it to heart," Kelly said.

Kelly said there were clearly two sides to the issue in Tompson's complaint. "It's not an egregious offense, in my opinion," Kelly said.

nwest@unionleader.com


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