LITTLETON — On a 3-2 party-line vote, the Executive Council rejected Attorney General Gordon MacDonald’s nomination as chief justice of the state Supreme Court on Wednesday, handing Republican Gov. Chris Sununu a defeat he labeled “Washington D.C. theatrics.”
Councilors Andru Volinsky, Michael Cryans and Debora Pignatelli, all Democrats, voted against a motion to appoint MacDonald to the court, with Republicans Ted Gatsas and Russell Prescott voting in favor.
Expressing frustration, Sununu said he would wait before bringing another nomination forward.
“To have someone with (MacDonald’s) background treated like this is reprehensible,” Sunnunu said at the Littleton Opera House, where he and the Executive Council were meeting.
In a statement issued after the meeting, Sununu said the vote against MacDonald was a first for him during the nine years he has been involved as governor or a member of the Executive Council.
“Never have we had a nominee so resoundingly supported, including the three most recent Supreme Court Chief Justices, 18 past presidents of the New Hampshire Bar Association, leaders of all political stripes, and over 100 distinguished members of the bar,” Sununu said. “And never, until today, has politics ever come into play in the questioning and confirmation of nominees.”
Pignatelli accused Sununu of trying to shift the balance of the court.
“In the past 23 years, democratic governors have appointed conservative judges. I have supported them, including the retiring chief justice, in 2010,” Pignatelli said in a statement. “We voted for balance on our highest court. In contrast, Governor Sununu, so far, has shown no such inclination. To the contrary, it is obvious he is trying to pack the court with very conservative justices.”
Earlier in Wednesday’s meeting, Pignatelli said Sununu’s unilateral approach to court nominations was “not the New Hampshire way” and that MacDonald would have been the third justice appointed to the Supreme Court in the past two years “to not have worn the robe.”
While having a judge who is a highly qualified person with unquestioned ethics is important, said Pignatelli, “that is the bare minimum.”
Pignatelli said she wanted a court that is “balanced on the political-philosophical spectrum from liberal to conservative” and also on gender.
Gatsas, former mayor of Manchester, pleaded with his colleagues to support MacDonald, saying that during hearings on his nomination, even the “most partisan people” were behind the nominee.
Gatsas said he never thought that MacDonald would “give me a partisan answer on anything.”
Then, maybe because he sensed how the vote would go, Gatsas made his final remarks in the past tense.
“I can tell you Gordon MacDonald would have made a great chief justice,” said Gatsas.
Prescott called MacDonald “the cream of the crop” and someone who is so qualified that “he is a 100-year man” with a candidate of his caliber coming along only once a century.
“I pray that we hold off on this vote and give it one more session,” until the governor and council’s July 31 meeting, Prescott said, adding: “His (MacDonald’s) whole life is laid open and we’re playing politics.”
Gatsas made a motion to table MacDonald’s nomination, but the motion failed when only Prescott joined him in voting for it.
After the council voted to reject MacDonald’s nomination, Sununu said it meant that “Washington D.C. theatrics have entered New Hampshire.”