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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Let’s put an end to redress panel

Guest Editorial

The House Redress of Grievances Committee is an artifact of Colonial-era New Hampshire that for 150 years remained embalmed in the state constitution. Last year, House Speaker Bill O’Brien summoned the committee back from the dead, ostensibly to serve as a check on the power of the courts and public officials and agencies.

The committee is New Hampshire’s version of the 17th-century British star chamber, albeit one that holds its sessions in public. It is not required to obey the rules of law and evidence. It can decide cases after hearing only one side.

It can recommend that the Legislature dismiss judges and other public officials whose rulings displease the committee. It can recommend that damages be paid, and it can seek to overturn judicial rulings, including those granting child custody to one parent instead of another.

When the committee was formed one year ago, we called it a “kangaroo court, albeit one whose only power is to make trouble and issue reports.” But that was before the committee chairman, Paul Ingbretson of Pike, complained that the committee generally only heard one side of the issue because the accused refused to attend its hearings.

The House solved that problem by voting to give the grievance committee, and others, power to subpoena witnesses and records and to presumably jail those who fail to comply. The committee now has the power to force citizens to appear before it.

Their subpoena may arrive long after a decision has already been rendered by a court. Citizens may be forced to appear before the committee to answer questions about their private lives.

Attorney General Michael Delaney, whose department observed the committee’s proceedings at its request, wrote to O’Brien and told him that the grievances committee was “targeting those who are simply performing their jobs” as required by state law. Its actions were creating an atmosphere of “fear and persecution” on the part of public employees, particularly those charged with protecting abused and neglected children and settling family disputes.

Such employees are required by law to keep information confidential and, if subpoenaed, would be forced to choose between refusal to comply with the committee’s request and breaking the law.

There are 18 representatives on the committee: 13 Republicans and five Democrats. To date, the committee has taken up 33 petitions for redress. Of the 27 still listed on its website, all are sponsored by Republicans.

One representative, Rep. Daniel Itse of Fremont, sponsored seven of them. Almost all of the petitions taken up by the committee involve family disputes and cases brought by the state Division for Children Youth and Families.

The committee gives citizens who can find a state representative willing to sponsor their request for redress another bite of the legal apple. It gives the Legislature the extraordinary opportunity to intervene in private disputes. Matters settled in the courts cannot truly be considered settled.

The result: chaos, uncertainty, the harassment of citizens by a highly political body appointed by one man, and recommendations to the House to reverse a judicial decision.

Not only should the committee be disbanded, but when a more reasonable Legislature is convened, the constitution should be amended to put a stop to future quasi-legal follies and abuses of power under Articles 31 and 32.

New Hampshire may have needed a redress of grievances committee in the 18th century – though we doubt it – but it certainly doesn’t need one in the 21st.

– Concord Monitor