Governor’s Council nixes Sununu’s choice for Chief Justice

NASHUA – In a 3-2 party-line vote, the Democratic-controlled New Hampshire Executive Council on Wednesday rejected Attorney General Gordon MacDonald’s nomination to serve as chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

In June, Gov. Chris Sununu nominated MacDonald to become the next New Hampshire chief justice, as current Chief Justice Robert Lynn is scheduled to retire in August. Lynn was named to the post upon the retirement two years ago of Chief Justice Linda Dalianis.

After Sununu’s nomination, it was up to the five members of New Hampshire’s statewide Executive Council to confirm or reject MacDonald.

Members of the Executive Council are:

• Democrat Debora B. Pignatelli of Nashua;

• Republican Theodore L. Gatsas of Manchester;

• Republican Russell E. Prescott of Kingston;

• Democrat Andru Volinsky of Concord; and

• Democrat Mike J. Cryans of Hanover.

After the vote, Sununu accused the three Democratic councilors of “an unconscionable breach of the public trust.”

“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. And never, until today, has politics ever come into play in the questioning and

confirmation of nominees,” Sununu said Wednesday.

Sununu referred to a “hyperpartisan hearing last month,” during which pro-choice advocates expressed concern that MacDonald, given an opportunity, could theoretically try to outlaw abortion.

“The Executive Council decided to make it a litmus test. Allowing these types of Washington, D.C., circus theatrics to enter into what was, until today, an untainted process, is shameful,” Sununu said.

Sununu said he was disappointed for MacDonald, calling him one of the most qualified nominees he has seen.

“So given that, it is clear that we need to take a pause on the judicial nominating process and not move forward with any nominees until I have confidence there’s appropriate perspective from the Council on their responsibilities to the process and to the state,” Sununu added.

Pignatelli’s Take

Pignatelli told The Telegraph her main reason for voting against MacDonald is that he is a “very conservative political partisan.”

“I believe the most important vote an Executive Councilor can make is one to confirm a nominee to our Supreme Court. I took this very seriously. I have read everything and have listened to everyone. Taking it all into consideration, I cannot support this nomination,” Pignatelli stated via email.

“It is obvious (Sununu) is trying to pack the court with very conservative justices,” she added.

Pignatelli said the high court would have a “four to one imbalance” of conservatives to liberals if MacDonald had been confirmed.

“New Hampshire is not a four to one state. I think 25 years of political elections prove that,” she said.

Pignatelli also said she and other councilors tried to consult with Sununu regarding the seat before he nominated MacDonald. She said these efforts were unsuccessful.

“This appointee would be the third justice in the last two years who has never worn a robe — has never served on our Circuit or Superior Court. We have had good Supreme Court justices who had no trial prior court experience, and though it is not mandatory, it does add to the qualifications and allows us to examine a record of a nominee’s written rulings,” Pignatelli added in questioning MacDonald.

“Some see me as a partisan, but I face the voters every two years and am not nominated for the state’s most important appointment to age 70. I have voted for conservatives to our Supreme Court, but never for a partisan activist,” Pignatelli said.

“We have, again, extended a hand to the governor to work with him to fill this vacancy and the position of chief justice. In fact, I have shared information on an excellent candidate who would have bipartisan support and could easily be confirmed by the council. I hope the governor will work with us,” she added.