NH has its own court controversy over a justice appointment, abortion

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/23/2020 9:56:50 PM
Modified: 9/23/2020 9:56:45 PM

LEBANON — The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the ongoing fight over her replacement is being felt in New Hampshire, where Democrats hope to make access to abortion a major election-year issue.

A vacancy on the New Hampshire Supreme Court will likely be determined after the November election when voters will decide whether to reelect Gov. Chris Sununu and members of the Executive Council, a five-member body tasked with reviewing contracts and approving appointments. Funding for Planned Parenthood has been a contentious issue before the council.

The outcome of those state races, Democrats assert, could set the groundwork for the dismantling of abortion rights or the passage of more stringent restrictions.

“In this election, voters will choose whether women continue to have the right to choose,” state Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, said during a Wednesday morning news conference outside Lebanon City Hall.

Nordgren was flanked by former state Sen. Peter Burling, D-Cornish; Deb Nelson, chairwoman of the Hanover/Lyme Democrats; and Lebanon City Councilor Sue Prentiss, the Democratic candidate for Senate District 5.

Together, they called on voters to reject a “wholesale attack on their health care” and reproductive rights.

But New Hampshire Republicans argue the threat to abortion is being overblown to score political points.

Sununu, a Republican seeking his third term, describes himself as “pro-choice” and his court nominees have been mum on Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that cemented abortion rights nationwide.

“These are desperate DC-style political stunts, and no matter how much they lie, the fact remains that Chris Sununu supports a woman’s right to choose and would oppose any attempt at the state level to overturn or repeal Roe v Wade,” Ben Vihstadt, the governor’s campaign spokesman said in an email Wednesday, “End of story.”

Democrats highlight Sununu’s 2015 vote to end Planned Parenthood’s state contract as partial proof that he supports an anti-abortion agenda, saying it threatened access to services.

They also point to the governor’s 2019 nomination of Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to the state Supreme Court as further evidence of his stance.

MacDonald, who enjoyed bipartisan support from the state’s legal community, was a former aide to then-U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey, R-N.H., an abortion-rights opponent. (Humphrey was a lifelong Republican until Donald Trump was elected and now supports Democrat Joe Biden for president).

MacDonald also represented the Catholic Diocese of Manchester while in private practice.

During confirmation proceedings, Democrats painted McDonald, who had the support of three previous chief justices, as a threat to abortion rights. Ultimately, the Executive Council voted, 3-2 along party lines to deny the confirmation, and Sununu says he’ll wait until after this year’s election to offer another nomination.

Executive Councilor Mike Cryans, D-Hanover, said MacDonald’s stance on abortion partially played into his decision. So did the attorney general’s lack of experience presiding over lower courts, he said. MacDonald has never been a judge, and Sununu nominated him to be chief justice.

“I think a person’s right to choose is just that,” Cryans said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Obviously we had a difference on that one.”

However, MacDonald said during proceedings that Roe v. Wade is settled law and he would be bound to honor it on the court.

“We all have personal beliefs, we all have thoughts we all have opinions, that’s part of who we are,” MacDonald told the Executive Council. “The essence of what a judge does is to exercise on a continual basis, the discipline of setting that aside and focusing on the law and the facts.”

The Democratic nominee for governor, Dan Feltes, has made abortion rights a part of his campaign to unseat Sununu saying earlier this month that he supports a litmus test for judicial appointments.

“Under my administration, support for reproductive health care freedom will be a litmus test, and as governor I will nominate a pro-choice woman to fill the vacancy on the New Hampshire Supreme Court,” Feltes, a state senator from Concord, said in a statement.

Former Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield, echoed Vihstadt’s comments that recent posturing on abortion amounts to political gamesmanship.

Kenney, an opponent of abortion rights who is trying to win his old seat back from Cryans, said the McDonald confirmation hearings highlight that.

The Executive Council, he said, failed to into account the attorney general’s decades of experience as a litigator, adding MacDonald “had as much support across the state as I’ve ever seen in any candidate.”

“It’s Washington, D.C. politics coming to Concord,” said Kenney.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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