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Second Time's The Charm For MacDonald, As Council Okays His Bid For N.H. Chief Justice

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New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald has been confirmed as chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, ending a protracted political dispute over who should lead the state’s high court.

The Executive Council vote Friday broke along party lines, with the council’s four Republicans uniting to elevate MacDonald, who’s never been a judge but who is widely respected in state legal circles, to the state’s highest judicial post.

“I haven’t seen an attorney general work any harder than Gordon MacDonald,” said Councilor David Wheeler, a Republican from Milford. “He has never lied to me -- that’s a big deal for me -- never given me false information. And that is a characteristic I’d like to see in a Supreme Court justice.” 

MacDonald, who has pledged to recuse himself from all cases involving the state Department of Justice while he led it, is the first New Hampshire attorney general to go directly from that post to the chief justice’s seat.

MacDonald’s confirmation came 17 months after Gov. Chris Sununu first nominated him. The then Democratically- led Executive Council rejected MacDonald’s first nomination in a 3-2 vote. Democrats cited his lack of judicial experience, his background in Republican politics, and his lack of clear support for abortion rights.

MacDonald has repeatedly told the council he considered the Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade “settled law” but declined to give his personal opinion on abortion during confirmation hearings.

“My view about abortion, and any other issue that comes before the court, is not relevant to the ability for me to exercise the role of a judge,” MacDonald told the New Hampshire Executive Council Thursday.

The council’s lone vote against MacDonald Friday came from the council’s only lawyer and only Democrat, Councilor Cinde Warmington of Concord.

“While I respect him, his legal scholarship and his integrity, I think a court led by Gordon MacDonald will exacerbate, rather than heal, the wounds of division and injustice in our state,” Warmington said.

MacDonald’s confirmation as chief justice means Sununu has appointed three of the high court’s five members.

“I would like to thank Councilors Wheeler, Kenney, Gatsas, and Stevens for carefully considering Gordon’s outstanding qualifications,” Sununu said in a statement. Sununu went on to praise MacDonald as “one of the most highly qualified individuals ever to serve as Chief Justice.”

MacDonald is 59 and lives in Deering. He grew up in Hanover and is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Cornell Law School.  He’s been a member of the New Hampshire Bar since 1995.

MacDonald’s legal career prior to being named Attorney General by Sununu in 2017 included a clerkship in federal court and private practice at the law firm Nixon Peabody. There, his clients included the New Hampshire Republican Party, the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, and pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma.

In 2010, MacDonald was part of the legal team that successfully sued the state when the administration of then-Governor John Lynch tried to use $110 million from a state-created malpractice insurance pool to fund the state budget.

MacDonald has served as chair of the New Hampshire Board of Bar Examiners and led the Campaign for Legal Services Leadership Council, which raises funds for civil legal assistance in New Hampshire.

Prior to becoming attorney general, MacDonald was also active in Republican politics for decades. He served as chief of staff for former U.S. Senator Gordon Humphrey, and managed former Vice President Dan Quayle’s 2000 New Hampshire presidential primary campaign.

More recently, MacDonald served on the board of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a free-market think tank. In 2016, MacDonald was a Republican National Convention delegate for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential bid.

MacDonald downplayed the relevance of those partisan ties during his confirmation hearings, both in 2019 and this week.

“To the function of judging, you leave your personal beliefs at the door,” MacDonald told the Executive Council Thursday.