When Governor Chris Sununu looked for somebody to replace retiring state supreme court Justice Carol Ann Conboy, he didn’t have to look very far.
His pick, Bobbie Hantz, was, until the day she applied to join the state’s highest court, a member of the selection panel Sununu appointed to help him vet would-be judges.
While that’s allowed under the rules set by his commission, but it wouldn’t have been under the commissions of his predecessors.
The power to nominate judges is big for any governor. It’s the chance to shape a coequal branch of government. It’ can also be a way to reward political allies.
One way recent New Hampshire Governors have sought to downplay the politics inherent to the prerogative to nominate judges is by forming a selection commission to help make judicial picks.
When governor Chris Sununu rolled out his in early February, he cast it as a time-tested way to ensure public confidence.
“It’s a system that’s worked very well to make sure you are not just putting your political friends in there. That’s just not the way we do things in New Hampshire. And so we thought this was, the judicial selection commission, was a great mechanism to ensure that type of transparency.”
Bobbie Hantz was among the eight members Sununu tapped for the commission. The governor says he reached out to Hantz, a lawyer prominent in GOP circles and known as an expert in land use issues, well before the commission was launched.
But once the commission’s work began, Sununu says, Hantz made clear she had an eye on another job, that of Supreme Court Justice.
“Once it got formed. I don’t want to speak for her, but she decided to put her hat in the mix, so to say, to be considered for a position, and so it was only appropriate for her to step off as soon as she had made that decision she asked me and I said, then you’ll have to step off and go through the process like everybody else.”
Hantz didn’t return a request for comment, but according to information supplied by the Governor’s office, her resignation from the commission wasn’t immediate. Officially, it came two months after the commission was formed, on April 4.
That’s the same day applied to be a justice. But according to the selection Commission’s Chairman, Chuck Douglas, Hantz’s had made him aware of her intentions before that.
“At some point in March, she called me and said, you know I am going to apply. So I should probably not participate any further, even in the circuits, and I agreed with her.”
Under the terms of past judicial selection commissions, that resolution would have been impossible.
Under the commissions formed by Governors Shaheen, Lynch and Hassan – and Hantz served on John Lynch’s commission - members were barred from seeking any state judicial appointment for a year after their time on the commission was over. Governor Sununu says it was no accident that provision didn’t survive when he drew up his commission.
“No it didn’t, and I think, I don’t see the need for that. If you have someone that’s really good that’s part of the process that wants to step up and be a judge and fill a vacancy then we don’t want to be prevent good people from coming to the forefront.”
Bobbie Hantz next chance to be at the forefront will be during her confirmation hearing before the Executive Council. That’s on Monday.