Q&A with: Former AG Phil McLaughlin

Phil McLaughlin is no stranger to the American justice system, public service and politics. After serving as a U.S. Navy lieutenant from 1967 to 1971, he graduated from Boston College Law School in 1974 and was admitted to the New Hampshire Bar the same year. He spent the next 23 years as a partner in a well-known Laconia law firm and then moved to public service, serving as Belknap County attorney from 1979 to 1981 and then again as New Hampshire’s attorney general from 1997 to 2002.

McLaughlin recently sat down with NHBR in what he termed his first public comments in six years.

Q. Do you miss being New Hampshire’s attorney general or are you happier in your private practice?

A. I was attorney general for six incredibly busy years, from 1997 to 2002, and I do miss the challenge of the tough cases. The office provided a great opportunity for public service. I miss the association of the people who worked with me. Happily, I continue to enjoy the private practice of law.

Q. Do you disapprove of the manner in which former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte stepped down recently to explore a run for the U.S. Senate?

A. I neither approve nor disapprove. I would have made a different choice. She made a political decision to seek higher office. My personal choice would have been to fulfill an appointed term.

Q. What are your thoughts on the effectiveness and performance of her as New Hampshire’s attorney general?

A. My predecessors as attorney general had the decency not to comment upon my performance as attorney general. I owe the same courtesy to my successors, Peter Heed and Kelly Ayotte. I like and respect both individuals.

Q. What are your thoughts on the use of the death penalty in the Michael Addison murder case?

A. The Addison case was a tragedy from the very beginning. The death of Officer Briggs leaves a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.

The law was carried out faithfully. For me, the question has become the justice of the law. Justice is an issue that needs to be seen with a wide lens. It requires more vision than results from the passions aroused by one case. When this state, over the course of almost 75 years, may execute one person, a young black man, can it be said that the law continues to serve the overall public good?

I am not a conscientious objector when it comes to either military service or the death penalty. I do not have grave moral concerns about the “right” of the state to have the death penalty. I have come to question the wisdom of the penalty. I particularly question the wisdom of a law that so deeply and passionately divides our people over an event that may occur once every 75 years.

Q. Are there other things you would have done differently if you had remained attorney general?

A. I have no reason to believe that I would have handled any case differently than Kelley has.

Q. You’ve served as county attorney, a city councilor and school board member in Laconia, is there another run for public office in your future?

A. Nothing planned.

Q. What are your thoughts on how our leaders in Concord and Washington are dealing with the bad economic times?

A. Given the unprecedented array of problems facing us, I believe that the nation is blessed to have Barack Obama as president. He gives me hope for the future.

In New Hampshire, I admire the tireless efforts of the legislative leaders and members to formulate a budget given the rules of the game.

I think that the rules of the game should change. In my view, the best tax system is one based upon a bedrock principle — fairly divide the burden. Fair division is not the bedrock policy of this state. It will take leadership from Concord to challenge the status quo. It should start with political candidates having the courage to reject taking “the pledge.” If they stand against tax reform, they should just say so, and then keep their word.

Taking the pledge kills the opportunity for meaningful debate. I am opposed to the pledge and in favor of a well-informed public debate about a fair and sustainable tax policy, one that keeps us competitive but also ensures meaningful resources for vital public services. We need a debate about where this state will be in 10 and 20 years, not just at the next election cycle.

Q. Are you optimistic about the future of our local and national economies?

A. I am if health-care reform passes, if we can develop an intelligent environmental policy, if we can systemically reduce the national debt to make us less economically dependent internationally, and if we can continue to produce leaders with the courage and integrity of Barack Obama.

Q. Are you optimistic about the justice system in New Hampshire?

A. The strength of the New Hampshire legal system is the commitment of the judges and their remaining staffs to manage grossly inadequate resources. Their commitment has its limits. The refusal of the state to raise adequate tax revenue is badly harming the justice system and other facets of state government.

The complaints about the harm are not overstated. Absent change in the tax structure, I am not optimistic about the future of the justice system in New Hampshire. Optimism and happy thoughts for the future will not process cases. Judges and clerks do that. We have way too few. It’s a money issue.