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Morning Edition

State Senator: County Attorneys Should Be Appointed, Not Elected

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Allegra Boverman for NHPR
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County attorneys in New Hampshire have traditionally been elected, but a proposal going before state lawmakers seeks to change that.

A bill filed this session proposes to amend the state constitution to make the office of county attorney an appointed position, instead of elected by the voters.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for the Senate Judiciary Committee later this morning.

Martha Fuller Clark is a Democratic state Senator from Portsmouth, and is the bill’s prime sponsor.

She joined Morning Edition to talk about the proposal.

What’s the argument against having county attorneys elected? What problem is this trying to fix?

The genesis of this bill really came from an editorial in Foster’s Daily Democrat suggesting that this would be an appropriate change to make. If you think back, our constitution is over 200 years old that called for the election at the county level of county treasurers, registers of probate, county attorneys, sheriffs, and register of deeds.

It struck me in reading that editorial and with a considerable amount of consternation that had gone on with the situation in Rockingham County regarding our previous county attorney that the world has changed. We need to ensure that we have the best qualified serving in an office like county attorney, which deals with such critical issues.

As long as it continues to be an elected office, it will continue to be partisan. It doesn’t ensure that the proper vetting has taken place and that we get the best qualified individuals filling that very important office.

So under your proposal, who would appoint the county attorneys?

Under my proposal, the New Hampshire Bar Association board of governors would select three individuals that they would recommend. They would vet them, and then they would pass those names on to the governor, who would bring forth one of those names for final approval before the Executive Council.

We saw the controversy recently in Rockingham County, where the state stepped in and suspended the county attorney Jim Reams for alleged misconduct. No charges were ever filed and Reams was eventually allowed to return to the office.

How would this affect when or if the state could intervene when there are allegations of misconduct?

Those allegations of misconduct would still be dealt with by the attorney general. It doesn’t change that. This would only change the method of appointment, not of oversight.

You’d actually have to amend the state constitution to make this happen, and there’s a pretty high bar for that.

It’s a very high bar. It has to be approved by two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate, and then ultimately if it is passed, it goes directly on to the ballot, which would be for 2016. Then two-thirds of the voters would have to approve that constitutional amendment.

I recognize that is an enormous challenge, but I believe this is a discussion that needs to take place. I believe that if we want to have the best possible individuals serving in critical offices at the county, local, and state level, then we need to review how those individuals are selected. That’s why I decided to file this bill.