MANCHESTER — Gov. Chris Sununu said on Wednesday that drunk driving suspect Scott Hilliard is off the Judicial Selection Commission, a panel that screens applicants for jobs as New Hampshire judges.
“He’s off, yes. It was immediate,” the Republican governor said when asked by Democratic Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky about Hilliard. The sheriff was arrested Aug. 9 in Northfield and charged with drunken driving.
The query started a freewheeling discussion about judicial selection and nominations, demonstrating that feelings remain raw seven weeks after the partisan, 3-2 vote to reject Sununu’s nomination of Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald to be chief justice to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Councilor Russell Prescott said he wants to know more about the selection commission. Prescott, a Republican, said that he had happily voted to appoint Martin P. Honigberg, who had worked as legal counsel to past Democratic governors, to a judgeship, but did not know all about the candidate’s political involvement.
The Judicial Selection Commission reviews candidates for open judicial slots and makes recommendations to the governor. The governor then nominates candidates and the Executive Council confirms or rejects nominations.
Prescott said he doesn’t know the commission’s process, how it ensures impartiality, or even whether members recite the Pledge of Allegiance or take an oath to uphold the Constitution.
Politics didn’t matter when it came to Honigberg’s nomination, Prescott said, but it did with MacDonald. Something went wrong, he said.
“Let’s dig deeper, let’s find out why there was a different outcome,” he said.
Sununu said the commission is independent, but he would ask it to provide more information.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Volinsky said he couldn’t find out information about Hilliard. Volinsky is contemplating a Democratic challenge to Sununu next year.
“The Judicial Selection Commission is run by Chuck Douglas, and it’s completely opaque,” Volinsky said. Douglas, a Concord trial attorney, is a former Republican congressman and former state Supreme Court justice. Hilliard was listed as a member of the Selection Commission website an hour after Sununu assured councilors he had been immediately removed from the commission. The name was removed by Wednesday evening.
Meanwhile, MacDonald’s office did not provide answers to questions about Hilliard’s status as sheriff.
Prescott has said he would like to see MacDonald get another shot at the chief justice post and Sununu has yet to nominate anyone else to fill the seat.
Volinsky and fellow Democrat Debora Pignatelli faulted Sununu for not meeting with the Executive Council to discuss how to move forward with the vacancy.
They said that unlike former governors, Sununu does not contact them informally to ask about top nominations before he makes them public.
“I don’t think I should have to beg to talk to my governor about a nomination,” Pignatelli said. “It’s advice and consent, and we’d like to advise.”
Benjamin Vihstadt, the governor’s spokesman, said Sununu has followed the practice of other governors in judicial appointments, and then Gov. Maggie Hassan did not consult with Sununu about nominations when Sununu was a councilor.
“The councilors know how to reach out to the governor and share their thoughts on any pending nomination, as they have done in the past,” Vihstadt said. Sununu’s first executive order recreated this bipartisan commission to make recommendations for judgeships, replicating a process used by previous governors, he said.
“Every single judicial candidate that Governor Sununu has nominated has been recommended by the governor’s bipartisan Judicial Selection Commission,” Vihstadt said.
The Executive Council met at the Boys and Girls Club in Manchester.