Attorney general faces hearing as chief justice nominee

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Tapped to lead New Hampshire’s highest court, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said Wednesday he has the experience, attitude and skills to switch from enforcing laws to interpreting them despite having no prior judicial experience.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu nominated MacDonald earlier this month to replace Chief Justice Robert Lynn, who retires in August. While MacDonald has broad support from the legal community — including Lynn and his two predecessors — critics have raised questions about his lack of experience as a judge and his involvement in conservative Republican politics.

“My pledge to you and through you, to the people of New Hampshire, is that if I am confirmed, I will faithfully uphold and apply the law and will perform all of my duties fairly and impartially,” MacDonald told the Executive Council at his public hearing. “I will protect the independence of our judiciary and I will do all I can improve the administration of justice.”

MacDonald would be the third of Sununu’s appointees to the high court without experience as a judge, but he would be the first in at least a century to become chief justice without having ever served as a judge. He argued that overseeing more than 140 employees at the Department of Justice and working with other state agencies and the Legislature puts him in good position to become administrator of the judicial branch.

“My approach has been to set clear standards, to lead by example and to work collaboratively,” he said.

Democrats hold a 3-2 majority on the Executive Council, which will vote on MacDonald’s nomination at a later date. Through repeated questioning Wednesday, they expressed concerns that his past political work, including working for Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey in the 1980s, would influence him if the court takes up cases involving abortion rights. MacDonald insisted it would not.

“I’m here to be judged as a judge, not based on Sen. Humphrey’s beliefs, or my beliefs. They need to be set aside,” he said.

Nancy Martland, of Sugar Hill, said she doesn’t trust MacDonald to protect women’s reproductive rights and worries what he would do if Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, is overturned.

“Mr. MacDonald has said today that he will uphold the law and follow precedent. That sounds pretty good until you realize here in New Hampshire, as I understand it, there is no judicial precedent,” she said.

Supporters, who outnumbered opponents 3-1, praised MacDonald’s intellect and compassion. Retired Justice Carol Ann Conboy said he acts with a sense of urgency that would benefit the court.

“Our Supreme Court is not an ivory tower. Real people are waiting for life-altering decisions,” she said. “This sense of urgency is crucial to the leadership of our judicial system.”

Brian Harlow, of Concord, offered perhaps the most surprising words of support. A victim of clergy sex abuse, Harlow said at the hearing he met MacDonald when MacDonald represented the Diocese of Manchester. MacDonald, he said, helped him take “immeasurable steps toward healing.”

“His fairness, compassion and ability to turn what is typically a re-traumatizing environment into a space where I felt seen, heard and validated was nothing short of amazing,” Harlow said.