New Hampshire lawmakers weigh proposal to remove judges

The legislation would allow the public to seek the removal of state judges through a petition process.

Updated: January 21, 2022 - 10:42pm

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New Hampshire lawmakers are debating a proposal that would allow the public to seek the removal of state judges through a petition process.

The legislation, which is currently pending before by the House Committee on Legislative Administration, calls for amending the state Constitution to create a system for recalling or removing judges by a petition of registered voters.

New Hampshire judges, who are appointed by the governor and can serve until they are 70, can be removed by the state Supreme Court based on a recommendation of the state's Judicial Conduct Committee.

But the bill's primary sponsor, state Rep. Norman Silber, R-Gilford, told the lawmakers that there is no mechanism for the general public to recall a judge which he argued "makes them unaccountable to the people."

"Right now, the citizens of our state have essentially no practical way to remove judges whose behavior they might think is improper but doesn’t rise to that supreme level of impeachment,” he told the committee during a live-streamed hearing.

Silber said the impeachment process is "a drastic remedy" and seldom used. Only two judges have been impeached in the state's history, he said.

He pointed out that at least 40 other states have laws allowing for the recall of public officials, including judges, if it is determined they violate the law.

The governor can also remove a sitting judge if both houses of the Legislature decide by a two-thirds vote that they violated the law or the duties of office. That process has also been rarely used.

But the proposed amendment has received a cool reception from a group representing lawyers, which argues that it would leave the judiciary branch open to political pressure.

Richard Guerriero, attorney and president of the New Hampshire Bar Association, told committee members that the 5,000 member organization strongly opposes the proposal.

"We see this as an effort that would politicize judicial decisions in court cases, and we think it is not proper," Guerriero told the committee. Judges are thinking about or pressured by efforts to remove them from office because of their actions in particular cases, that will politicize their decision, which is not what our constitution intends."

He said there are already mechanisms for holding judges accountable for their decisions, and under the law defendants can also appeal rulings that they find questionable.

"The normal remedy is you appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, and they correct that decision," Guerriero said.

To be sure, the proposal faces an uphill battle in the state Legislature, where it would have to pass by a two-thirds majority to be put before voters.

New Hampshire's Constitution has been amended only about 200 times since it was ratified 1784, and many proposed amendments die before they reach the ballot.