Benson won’t pick city judge

CONCORD – Gov. Craig Benson decided to drop plans to fill a vacant judgeship at Nashua District Court that has been the source of intense, political controversy, his spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday.

The Nashua judgeship appears to be one of a few openings that will wait to be filled by Gov.-elect John Lynch after he takes the oath of office on Jan. 6, according to Executive Councilor Raymond Burton, a Bath Republican.

“The governor is running out of time and he knows it,’’ Burton said.

Lynch had urged Benson to hold off on filling significant openings until he took the post.

Legally, Benson had time to nominate a judge, hold a public hearing and then have the Executive Council vote on the appointment, press secretary Alicia Preston said.

“Technically, there is still time to do this if the council started the ball rolling in the next week or so. The governor has absolutely no plans to do that,’’ Preston said after a council meeting Wednesday.

Benson’s latest choice for the job – former Hillsborough County Attorney John Coughlin – turned down the nomination that Benson offered right after the Executive Council had approved hiring Coughlin as a full-time judge in Derry District Court.

Coughlin is scheduled to complete a National Guard tour of duty as a judge advocate in Iraq at the end of February.

Benson had advanced Coughlin as the new choice for the Nashua court slot the same day he withdrew the name of Marc Coro, a Milford lawyer.

Four of five councilors confirmed they would have voted against Coro after questions were raised concerning a complaint of sexual harassment first brought against Coro in 2000.

State judicial officials concluded a Coro remark alluding to the body of a female administrator at Nashua District Court did not equal harassment, but could have contributed to a hostile work environment.

Coro said the remark to a third-party court employee had been misunderstood and was not meant to be sexual.

The job has been vacant since July 2003 when Philip Howorth, the administrative judge of the Nashua court, retired.

Benson nominated three different male lawyers for this post, but in each case, the governor did not bring the person for a final vote.

The council next meets Jan. 4 and has tentative plans to also meet on Jan. 6 to complete any unfinished business, hours before Lynch would officially take the reins of power.

Lynch’s spokeswoman, Pamela Walsh, questioned the wisdom of trying to fill the vacancy before Benson left.

“They would have been talking about holding a hearing on this vacancy during the Christmas week and that hardly made any sense,’’ Walsh said.

Councilor David Wheeler, a Milford Republican, said he believed the job would remain open once Benson passed on filling it Wednesday.

“You really had such a tight time frame that if he didn’t move ahead this week, it would be very hard to get it done,’’ Wheeler said.

Benson had not spoken about the matter since Coughlin turned down the Nashua judgeship, Wheeler said.

“I did hear some names of people who still had some interest in it, but that’s not going anywhere now,’’ Wheeler said.

Coughlin’s decision to take the Derry judgeship canceled Benson’s plans to promote a part-time Auburn District Court judge for the Derry job.

Auburn Court Judge David LaFrancois, a Derry resident, will remain where he works.

Meanwhile, Robert Stephen of Manchester took the oath of office Wednesday to become a part-time judge in the Derry District Court.

Stephen is the brother of Health and Human Services Commissioner John Stephen, and the council approved him on a 3-2 vote earlier this month.