Benson: 2001 law on replacing judges may be flawed

CONCORD – Gov. Craig Benson said the executive branch should pick the chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and the 2001 law that took away that authority could legally be flawed.

Benson said he supports a proposed bill for the 2004 session to return the selection of chief justice back to the governor and Executive Council.

“For the good of the people of this state they ought to have the best and most qualified person running the court system,’’ Benson said.

During an interview Monday, Benson said his first nominee to the state’s highest court to replace retiring Justice David Brock would, in all likelihood, be an older lawyer with some managerial experience.

“I think it’s better to give someone who has some experience, maybe a little older,’’ Benson said.

“I don’t want to give someone who is 30 years old a chance to go over and spend 40 years on the bench. I don’t think that’s necessarily smart because people change over time.’’

Benson said the timing of Brock’s departure surprised him and he has not come up with a plan for picking a replacement.

Benson disbanded the judicial screening commission that former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen created by executive order to review applicants for judgeships.

The New Hampshire Legislature approved a law two years ago that ends the indefinite term for a chief justice and limits it to five years.

The most senior jurist on the five-person court takes the job if there is an opening and the judge agrees to the assignment.

The Legislature approved and ex-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen signed this judicial reform the year after the State Senate acquitted Brock on four impeachment charges.

Benson said he would ask Attorney General Peter Heed to review whether the law unconstitutionally takes away executive powers.

“There are some issues with the old law that should be looked at,’’ Benson said.

The state Constitution does not prescribe how the chief justice of the court is to be chosen.

Amherst Republican Rep. Robert Rowe is authoring the proposal to give the governor and council the appointing power.

“I think that’s where it rightly belongs,’’ Rowe said.

Rep. Lawrence Elliott, R-Hillsborough, is preparing legislation to create a similar, rotating term for the chief justice of the Superior Court.

Even if that bill became law, Benson would not rule out naming the court’s senior judge, Associate Justice John Broderick.

“We’ve gotten along just fine,’’ Benson said.

“John Broderick may be the best able to fill that position.’’

Benson said he wishes Brock well but is against anyone staying in a public position of authority for too long.

“Hopefully this will lead to a better relationship between the legislative and judicial branches,’’ Benson said.