Disorder in the House

By Monitor staff

July 31, 2012

If you’re looking to sum up the awfulness of the 2011-12 New Hampshire Legislature, recent deliberations in the case of state Senate candidate Joshua Youssef by the House Redress of Grievances Committee give you everything you need to know. Consider:

• The committee heard a one-sided account of Youssef’s bitter custody fight but chose not to investigate the court record to get a fuller version of the case.

• Based on that one-sided account, the committee voted overwhelmingly to recommend investigating the impeachment of three state judges.

• Based also on that account, committee members – if re-elected – plan to introduce legislation that changes the rules in legal cases involving family disputes.

• The vote might have been even more lopsided, but several Republican committee members abstained because they have endorsed Youssef’s Senate campaign – a campaign he says was inspired by the very case under consideration.

In short, the drama included an “investigation” that limited itself to one half of the story, a dramatic recommendation that smeared the professional reputations of three judges, a plan to change state law without a full appreciation of how the law worked in this case, and a political candidate with a personal vendetta (and a bunch of elected officials who support him).

What a spectacle!

There are bigger questions highlighted by this case too, of course:

• Should the committee have been created in the first place?

The redress committee was re-established by House Speaker Bill O’Brien after lying dormant for generations, ostensibly to serve as a check on the power of the courts and public officials and agencies. Much of what the committee has concerned itself with have been appeals from the losing side in family court matters, convinced that a judge – or multiple judges – did them wrong. (Earlier this summer, the same committee recommended the impeachment of Judge John Arnold, also because it disliked his decision-making in a custody matter.)

In hearing such cases the committee has generated two distinctly terrible impressions: that court cases – even those appealed all the way to the Supreme Court – are never truly over and that judges can be sanctioned by legislators for unpopular rulings.

• Should the committee have been allowed to continue?

At least one committee member has refused to participate altogether. “It goes against the division of powers,” Democratic Rep. Steven Lindsey of Keene told the Keene Sentinel. “I consider it an extra-judicial committee. I feel my presence there would give it an air of respectability, so I haven’t really been going.”

Attorney General Michael Delaney told O’Brien earlier this year that the committee was “targeting those who are simply performing their jobs” as required by state law. Its actions were creating an atmosphere of “fear and persecution” on the part of public employees, particularly those charged with protecting abused and neglected children and settling family disputes.

The current Legislature has passed a lot of poor legislation, but equally troubling has been the heavy-handed process from the Republican leadership – and the relatively feeble protests from GOP members who know better. A year and a half after the creation of the redress committee, where are the strong voices calling for its demise?

There are races for 400 House seats this fall. Candidates will be asked lots of questions by lots of voters. Near the top of the list should be this: Do you support the continued existence of the Redress of Grievances Committee?