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N.H. Supreme Court Hears Case That Could Redefine How Right-To-Know Provisions Apply To Governor's Office

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Lawyers for the state and a liberal activist seeking emails from Gov. Chris Sununu's administration staff went before the state’s highest court Tuesday in a case that could redefine the governor's obligations to adhere to state right-to-know provisions.

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At issue are emails between Sununu staffers, on private email accounts, and employees of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, a group led by former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

The emails were exchanged before and after Sununu vetoed a 2019 bill to create an independent redistricting panel.

Louise Spencer of the progressive group Kent Street Coalition sought the emails under state law and the constitution. A Superior Court Judge ruled last year that the emails sent before the veto were subject to executive privilege and the emails sent after the veto were not government records.

Katherine Anthony, representing Spencer, urged the court to see this matter as being broader than the longstanding view held by New Hampshire governors in both parties that right-to-know law provisions apply narrowly when it comes to governors.

“We do believe that part 1, article 8 requires construing all of these things in favor of transparency and accountability,” Anthony told the court.

Arguing for the state, Jennifer Ramsay, told the justices the state right to know law rightly excludes the governor.

“The governor and his personal staff should be excluded, because otherwise you are impairing an inherent function of the executive,” Ramsay argued.

The stakes in this case could be significant. The justices seemed to recognize, not relish, the potential weight of the decision they render as they questioned Ramsay about the implications of clearly spelling out citizens’ right to open and accountable government.

“We’d have to define governmental records under our state constitution? Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi, asked. “Yes you do,” Ramsay replied.

“Also, perhaps, some day accountability?” Justice Gary Hicks said. “What does that mean?"

Any ruling in this case could take months.

“You’ve given us a tall order, so it seems,” Justice Patrick Donovan remarked.