On Tuesday, thousands of New Hampshire voters will fill in a bubble way down the ballot - under “County Attorney.” But who are they voting for, and what does the job entail? Few seem to know.
Related: Read Emily Corwin's interviews with the candidates for Hillsborough and Rockingham County Attorneys.
“Have you ever seen an episode of Law and Order?”
Garth Corriveau is running for county attorney in Hillsborough County. This, he says, is a conversation he has with voters, all the time. “Ok, you know Jack McCoy?” he asks, “well, I’m running to be Jack McCoy.”
It’s essentially a district attorney, except that in New Hampshire, the position is county-wide, not district-wide.
New Hampshire's D.A.
County attorneys prosecute nearly every felony in their counties. They are full time jobs that are one of the most important cogs in the state’s justice system, but the races to fill those seats are often sleepy affairs.
Of New Hampshire’s ten counties, only two have contested county attorney seats this year: Hillsborough, and Rockingham. Those two counties together contain more than half the population of New Hampshire.
Joe Plaia has seen all sides of the system. He has been a police prosecutor, he’s on Portsmouth’s police commission, and he’s got his own private criminal defense law firm.
“One of the biggest things in our justice system is individual prosecutorial discretion,” Plaia says. County attorneys decide “what to charge, and what not to.”
For Plaia, there are two major reasons why people should choose carefully who they vote for next week. First of all, a new law in New Hampshire will give county attorneys even more discretion in deciding which cases to pursue.
And secondly, as he puts it, “our criminal justice system is in crisis. We are by far the most jailed population in the civilized world.”
In light of the heroin epidemic, the legal community in New Hampshire is rethinking how to deal with drug crimes.
Hillsborough Race: Advocate or Enforcer?
And on this subject, in Hillsborough County, the two candidates take different views. Corriveau, the challenger, sees the job as being an advocate both for police, and for reform in the system.
Corriveau, a former Manchester alderman, says his number-one priority as county attorney will be improving and expanding the county’s drug courts.
His opponent Dennis Hogan says: justice reform should be someone else’s job. He says a good county attorney focuses on one case at a time, and stays out of the limelight.
Next door in Rockingham County, incumbent Patricia Conway is being challenged by Norm Patenaude. Patenaude has spent most of his career overseeing administrative hearings for state agencies.
Conway, on the other hand, has worked as a criminal prosecutor for 20 years, much of which under the previous county attorney, Jim Reams. That much time on the job is usually seen as a plus. But Norm Patenaude says voters should be wary of her ties to a recent scandal, involving her former boss.
An 'Ethical Cloud'
In 2014, the Attorney General investigated Reams’ office and accused Reams of ethical blunders, including doing an illicit favor for Conway’s husband, a former cop. After Reams retired, Pat Conway was elected. On her first day, she fired her former colleague, the whistleblower. Ultimately the county had to pay him $80,000 to settle the wrongful termination case.
Recently, Reams’ wife donated to Conway’s campaign.
But Conway says suggestions that she has ties to Reams’ problematic legacy are "baloney.”
“I think the voters saw through that the first time around in 2014,” she says, “and understood that the real important issue in the campaign was who was the best qualified to do this, and I think the voters spoke.”
Voters spoke, she says. And yet, even Conway admits: too many people show up at the polls uninformed about this race.