Legal Community, Police Chief Concerned About Rejection of Hassan's Judicial Nominee

Nov 10, 2015

For the first time in recent memory, New Hampshire’s Executive Council voted not to confirm an attorney nominated to a seat on the state's Superior Court bench. The Republican councilors who voted not to confirm Dorothy Graham, a longtime public defender, said they did so because of her history defending individuals accused of crimes -- particularly sex crimes against children. As word spreads of the scuttled nomination, some among the state’s legal community are voicing concern.

The Nomination

Dorothy Graham has represented indigent clients with the state’s public defender program for 20 years. When an independent judicial selection committee recommended she leave Manchester’s public defender office to be a judge on the Superior Court, supporters came from all sides of the legal system.

Manchester Chief of Police Enoch Willard is usually an adversary of Graham in court. But after Gov. Hassan nominated Graham to be a judge, Willard wrote the Executive Council a letter of recommendation on behalf of the entire Manchester Police Department.

Willard's letter read: “Ms. Graham possesses the qualities I feel are essential in a judge: patience, wisdom, courage, firmness, alertness, incorruptibility, and the gifts of sympathy and insight.” (Scroll down to read Chief Willard's letter.)

An Unexpected Vote

Willard says he was shocked to learn three of the council’s five members voted against Graham – scuttling her nomination to the bench. The vote was along straight party lines, with all three Republicans against her.

The Executive Council took the vote at a meeting in Newport last week
Credit Courtesy Photo

Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern, a Democrat running for governor next year, voted for her.

“She had universal support in the public hearing that we held for her,” Van Ostern recalls.

Republican Councilor Chris Sununu is the only councilor who explained his “no” vote during the council meeting. He is also running for governor next year.

“I do have concerns about the fact that she’s only been a public defender for the vast majority, if not her entire career,” Sununu said before voting against her confirmation. “I do usually like to see someone with more prosecutorial background.”

Graham would not be the first judge with a history on one side of the courtroom. Superior Court judge Steven Houran, for instance, worked only as an attorney general, and retired Supreme Court justice Jim Duggan spent his career as a public defender before becoming a judge.

Conservative DC Website Takes Aim At Hassan

Republican councilors Joe Kenney and David Wheeler also voted no. Kenney says his decision had to do with the fact that Graham had represented sex offenders as an appellate defender.

For the record, public defenders cannot choose their clients, and are bound by American Bar Association standards to defend them with “devotion.”

Kenney says he was motivated to vote nay after reading a piece published by the Washington Free Beacon, which is owned by Republican political activist, Michael Goldfarb, and founded by the conservative nonprofit, Center for American Freedom.

The headline calls out Governor Hassan, who announced her bid for US Senate last month. It reads: "NH Democratic Senate Candidate’s Judicial Nominations Criticized,” and begins, “New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan tapped a public defender with a history of trying to get child rapists off on technicalities for a vacant judgeship.”

Councilor Sununu says his vote was also motivated in part by the Free Beacon article.

Legal Community Pushes Back

Manchester Police Chief Willard says Graham was doing her job while defending sex offenders just as much as he does his job when he and his officers arrest sex offenders.

“There’s nothing technical about our laws, our laws are designed to protect our freedoms,” Willard says. “It was an ill-informed vote, and I think they really made a mistake in not confirming Dottie Graham.”

Alan Cronheim, the president of the state’s Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers says he hopes it’s not too late.

“I would welcome the councilors to take another look at the case, to learn more about what is the responsibility of appellate council, defense council. It would be my hope that if they understood defense council have an ethical duty to do exactly what Dottie did, they would reconsider their positions.”

Willard has also asked the three Republican councilors to reconsider Graham’s confirmation. Councilor Joe Kenney, who voted against Graham, has complained that one month wasn’t enough time to get public input on six judicial nominees.

For now, the seat on the court that Graham was slotted for is empty.

Manchester Police Chief Willard's Letter of Recommendation for Graham: