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Conduct committee members remain gagged despite justice's appeal

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    NMU         NEW HAMPSHIRE         Secret Courts         May 9, 2001    

Conduct committee members remain gagged despite justice’s appeal

  • The chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court asked a judicial conduct committee to allow its members to speak publicly about the reasons for its reprimand of him.

The chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court failed in his attempt to lift a gag order on members of a disciplinary panel who reprimanded him last month. After a May 8 meeting of the Judicial Conduct Committee, the strict confidentiality rules for judicial investigations will remain intact.

Reprimanded for ethics violations, Chief Justice David Brock asked on April 20 that the Judicial Conduct Committee revise it rules and permit the eight members who voted to admonish him to speak freely about the investigation. Only the two dissenting committee members were initially given permission to comment on the decision.

But when one member provided a local newspaper with confidential documents from Brock’s file, the committee decided to gag the two dissenters as well.

Committee member Anne Coughlin, who may now be held in contempt by the Supreme Court, gave the New Hampshire Sunday News a draft of a lawsuit Brock planned to pursue if he was brought up on formal charges. The lawsuit would have sought an injunction to halt the committee’s investigation.

The newspaper published the document on April 29, resulting in more questions and criticism from legislators and citizens.

One of the most controversial issues that has arisen from Brock’s reprimand is the involvement of two other justices. As a result, House Speaker Gene Chandler asked the committee to release its investigatory files to obtain more information about possible infractions by justices John Broderick and James Duggan. The two may have violated the judicial code of ethics if they helped negotiate a deal so that Brock could avoid formal charges.

The committee delayed action on Chandler’s request until it can obtain waivers from the people named in the Brock files. A similar request by The Manchester Union Leader to release the files was denied.

The reprimand is not the first time Brock has been the center of controversy. Last year, the House impeached him for breaches of the judicial code of ethics. He was cleared after a Senate trial last October, but was still subject to a Judicial Conduct Committee investigation.

And in a move to clear the inherent conflict of interest between the conduct committee and the court, the chief justice announced on May 7 a rule change aimed at creating a more independent monitoring arm of the judiciary. According to the Concord Monitor, the conduct of the justices will no longer be reviewed by attorneys and judges appointed by the bench, rather by a more diverse group of lay people. Appointments will be made by the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The committee would also have separate investigators and administrators, the newspaper reported.

ML


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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