Judicial pick may decline nomination

CONCORD – Gov. Craig Benson’s third choice for the Nashua District Court judge job may decline the nomination, the governor’s spokeswoman said Monday.

Benson nominated John Coughlin for the Nashua court last week, after the Executive Council unanimously confirmed him for an opening on the Derry District Court bench.

Speaking with councilors later, however, Coughlin let it be known that he would just as soon stick with the Derry job, said Alicia Preston, a spokeswoman for Benson. The governor learned of Coughlin’s decision some time after the council meeting, she said.

Executive Councilor David Wheeler of Milford, however, said Monday that Coughlin may have since changed his mind and decided to pursue the post after all.

Coughlin could not be reached Monday. A Mont Vernon lawyer who served briefly as Hillsborough county attorney, Coughlin is currently on leave from National Guard service in Iraq.

It’s not clear whether the governor would try again to fill the post, if Coughlin does bow out, Preston said. The position has remained vacant since Judge Philip Howorth retired in July 2003.

Two councilors said Monday they would rather Benson refrain from further judicial nominations, while two others said it’s entirely Benson’s call to make.

Benson could nominate someone else for the Nashua court at the council’s next meeting Dec. 15, but Preston couldn’t say whether he will.

“I’m not sure if that decision has been made yet,” she said, referring to whether the governor would make another nomination.

The council would have to hold a hearing, which requires seven days notice, before voting on whether to confirm any nominee. The council has no meeting on its calendar for the first week of January, but Benson could schedule one, Executive Assistant Joanne Ruel said.

Both Benson and Wheeler, who represents the Nashua area, will step down Jan. 6, when Gov.-elect John Lynch and Councilor Debora Pignatelli take office.

The Nashua District Court judge position has been vacant since Howorth reluctantly retired on his 70th birthday, July 11, 2003.

Nashua District Court is the second busiest in the state, after Manchester District Court, handling more than 70,000 criminal, small-claims, domestic and juvenile cases a year. Both district courts have two full-time and one part-time judge positions. State court administrators have sought funding for additional full-time judges for both courts, but the Legislature has spurned the requests.

Nashua District Court Associate Judge Thomas Bamberger wasn’t interested in stepping up to Howorth’s old job, though he has been acting as head judge in the meanwhile.

Benson initially nominated Merrimack District Court Judge Cliff Kinghorn to head up Nashua District Court. Kinghorn seemed to have made a favorable impression when the Executive Council considered him in June, and Councilors Peter Spaulding of Hopkinton and Ruth Griffin of Portsmouth said they would support him still.

Benson never put Kinghorn up for a vote, however, and later withdrew his nomination in favor of Milford attorney Marc Coro. Wheeler lobbied against Kinghorn, and for Coro.

Coro proved controversial, however, and Benson withdrew Coro’s nomination last week when it became clear the council wouldn’t approve him.

Coughlin wasn’t a shoo-in for the Nashua post, either, despite winning unanimous approval for the Derry job. Many of the same people who criticized Coro also were unimpressed with Coughlin, Wheeler said last week.

Wheeler, who is a friend of Coughlin, said Coughlin knew that his hearing for the Nashua court, scheduled for Dec. 14, would be nearly as contentious as Coro’s hearing.

“John Coughlin was threatened with the same type of hearing if he went forward,” Wheeler said, adding later, “You throw enough mud and some of it sticks.

“The Nashua District Court needs change,” Wheeler said. “The good old boys of the Nashua District Court need to be broken up. We need a fresh person down there. Relationships are too close, clerks with lawyers, lawyers with police.”

Griffin said she likely wouldn’t have supported Coughlin for the Nashua job.

“The Nashua court is far too big a court. . . . It isn’t an on-the-job training sort of position,” Griffin said, adding, “I think he’ll be just fine over in Derry.”

Both Griffin and Spaulding said they would prefer that Benson refrain from making any more nominations, with Spaulding citing “the shenanigans that have taken place in the last few weeks.”

Wheeler and Executive Councilor Ray Wieczorek of Manchester said it’s entirely up to Benson whether to nominate anyone else, however.

Benson had nominated Auburn District Court Judge Gary LaFrancois of Derry for the Derry bench on the assumption that Coughlin would move to the Nashua court. It’s not entirely clear whether the council could act on that nomination, since the governor can’t nominate people to positions that have been filled.