Executive Council is no place for partisan ideology

Thursday, November 03, 201
Read in The Concord Monitor

One year ago, the New Hampshire Executive Council shocked state leaders and the law enforcement community by blocking the appointment of Dorothy Graham for district court judge.

Three executive councilors opposed Graham because of her work as a public defender, providing legal representation to indigent criminal defendants as required by the U.S. Constitution.

It did not matter to the three Republican councilors that Graham had impressive legal credentials and decades worth of experience litigating cases in court. It did not matter that she was highly regarded by the legal and law enforcement community, and was even publicly endorsed by the Manchester chief of police who had opposed her in court. It did not matter that she represented a fresh voice for the judiciary based on her extensive work with some of the most vulnerable members of society.

All that seemed to matter to Councilors Joe Kenney, Chris Sununu, and David Wheeler was that Graham had done her job by fighting hard on behalf of people she was constitutionally and legally required to defend.

In rejecting Graham’s appointment to become a district court judge, the three executive councilors failed to do their job.

The primary job of New Hampshire’s five executive councilors is to review and vote on gubernatorial appointments and state contracts in excess of $25,000. With respect to appointments, councilors are charged with impartially vetting nominees to ensure they have the qualifications, independence and integrity necessary for the job. In doing so, councilors are expected to rise above partisanship and serve the public interest as good-government watchdogs on behalf of their constituents and the entire state.

When the Republican councilors blocked Graham’s appointment, they did not merely deny our state a highly qualified judge. They showed disrespect to a large and underrepresented segment of our society that relies on public defenders to uphold their constitutional rights to “equal justice under law” and disregarded New Hampshire’s constitutional separation of powers.

More than that, they dealt a blow to the long-overdue project of achieving equitable representation of women and minorities in the New Hampshire judiciary. A 2010 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found 73 percent of district court judges in New Hampshire were male and 100 percent were white. Likewise, the 2015 Open Democracy Index found nearly three-quarters of elected state officials were male and 99 percent were white.

The Executive Council’s rejection of Dorothy Graham follows a worrisome pattern of elevating partisan ideology over public service. The same three men who blocked Graham’s appointment also blocked health care funding in 2015 for Planned Parenthood clinics that serve 13,000 low-income women and men each year, against the wishes of the Legislature. They have pledged to block the New Hampshire Health Protection program – also approved by the Legislature – and thereby deny health insurance to 50,000 Granite Staters, including critical drug treatment to thousands who lack care.

And Councilor David Wheeler has even gone as far as to oppose New Hampshire Supreme Court nominees who accepted the state’s longstanding Claremont ruling guaranteeing every child an adequate education regardless of where they live. In my campaign to unseat Councilor Wheeler, I have pledged to execute the will of the Legislature on health care access, drug treatment, Planned Parenthood and education funding, and have devoted my career to addressing systemic poverty, expanding educational opportunity and ensuring all citizens have an equal voice in politics.

When it comes to judicial appointments, I will seek out and recommend highly qualified individuals like Dorothy Graham who will bring much-needed diversity and a wealth of new experience to our courts.

Rampant partisanship did not begin one year ago with the Graham appointment, but Granite Staters agree that it has gone too far. This election presents a choice between a divisive and ideologically-driven path – one that threatens progress on many important issues – or consensus-centered leadership that puts people’s needs ahead of partisan ideology. I urge Granite Staters to take the latter course by electing new leadership to the Executive Council.

(Dan Weeks is the former executive director of Open Democracy, a nonpartisan government watchdog group in Concord. He is the Democratic nominee for Executive Council in District 5.)