As Washington Debates Fate Of Supreme Court, Judicial Battles Come to N.H. Campaign Trail | New Hampshire Public Radio

As Washington Debates Fate Of Supreme Court, Judicial Battles Come to N.H. Campaign Trail

Sep 22, 2020

New Hampshire Democrats, including Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli, used a press conference in Concord to attack Gov. Chris Sununu's record on abortion. Sept. 21, 2020.
Credit Manchester InkLink

The brewing political fight over President Trump’s intention to quickly fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be centered in Washington and the U.S. Senate. But the political implications are far broader -- including here in New Hampshire.

NHPR’s Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers spoke about it with All Things Considered host Peter Biello.

(This interview originally aired on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.)

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Peter Biello: So, nominating Supreme Court justices is a president’s job; confirming them is the job of the U.S. Senate. We’ve got a Senate race this year here in New Hampshire.

Josh Rogers: We do. And like fellow Democrats, incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen thinks any replacement process should begin after the election. Her opponent, Republican Corky Messner, his whole campaign is centered on being an ally to President Trump. That also goes for this issue too. And for Jeanne Shaheen, campaigning around abortion rights - which is how plenty of people on both sides of the partisan divide are talking about filling the Ginsberg seat - is pretty familiar ground.

Biello: So, that’s in the Senate race here: fairly predictable positioning. But the Supreme Court opening is also finding its way into other races in New Hampshire.

Rogers: It is. Democrats are trying to broaden the fight, really making it ballot-wide and all about abortion, And Democrats had a good part of the 2020 ticket outside the New Hampshire Supreme Court, talking abortion, basically going after a guy not normally associated with the U.S. Supreme Court: Gov. Chris Sununu.

Biello: Governor Sununu, we should note, has said throughout his political career that he’s pro-choice, yes?

Rogers: Yes, he has and he does. But this moment does give state Democrats something that has eluded them in regards to Sununu for much of this campaign: That’s a chance to ride the news cycle and really shape the race on their own terms. At least, that’s their hope. No issue may galvanize New Hampshire Democrats more than abortion rights. And there are substantive questions they want to probe with Sununu on this issue.

Biello: Like what, in particular?

Rogers: As I mentioned, Sununu says he’s pro-choice, end of story. But there are matters that his opponents have pointed to: from his efforts to nominate Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to the head of the state Supreme Court, to opposition to a Planned Parenthood contract when he was an Executive Councilor, to his veto this year of a bill requiring insurers to cover abortion services. Democrats argue these show he’s not so pro-choice, or at the least unwilling to defend abortion rights when pressed.

The issue of Sununu’s efforts to get Gordon MacDonald installed as Chief Justice is an interesting one. I mean, when Democrats on the Executive Council rejected MacDonald, citing lack of judicial experience and his work for Republicans who oppose abortion rights, Sununu was furious. He claimed the Council held MacDonald to a different standard than other judicial nominees - and Sununu had already named and had confirmed two other nominees who’d never been a judge. And, basically, in protest, Sununu has since declined to engage with councilors on bringing another nomination forward.  The state court system has now gone without a chief justice for more than a year. I’m not unaware of any precedent for that. And Sununu has indicated he may try to renominate MacDonald again when a new council is seated. Democrats have meanwhile made holding the line on MacDonald a rallying cry.

Biello: So clearly, even on the state level, the politics of court appointments are charged - or at least Democrats think they should be.

Rogers: Certainly. And while few voters can probably tell you how many justices sit on New Hampshire’s Supreme Court, or if there is a vacancy, the fact that this has festered the way it has runs counter to the way Governor Sununu is pitching himself this election: as an executive who gets things done without excess partisanship. And for Democrats, if they can link this to President Trump and the way he’s tried to remake the federal judiciary, they are going to try to make that case stick on Election Day.

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