By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Gov. Chris Sununu didn’t nominate Public Utilities Commission Chairman Martin Honigberg to the Superior Court to make sure he would have no authority over any future utility projects such as Northern Pass, according to Sununu’s spokesman, Ben Vihstadt.
Honigberg was the chairman of the Site Evaluation Committee Feb. 1, 2018, when it denied Eversource/Northern Pass a certificate to build a for-profit, 192-mile high-voltage powerline from Pittsburg to Deerfield to bring Hydro-Quebec electricity to Massachusetts, a $1.6 billion project Sununu strongly supported.
Asked if he courted Honigberg, whom Sununu personally asked to apply for the Superior Court position, so he wouldn’t be on the PUC or SEC if another Northern Pass-type application is filed in the future, Vihstadt emailed:
District 1 Executive Councilor Michael Cryans said he hasn’t heard any concern about Honigberg and Northern Pass in his northernmost district.
“Obviously, we’ll have a say on who takes Marty’s place if he is confirmed,” Cryans said, adding Honigberg seems excited about the prospect of serving as a Superior Court judge.
Vihstadt didn’t respond to other questions about Honigberg or questions posed about Sununu’s nomination of Attorney General Gordon MacDonald as the chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court to replace retiring Chief Justice Robert Lynn.
The New Hampshire Democratic Party posted ads on social media Tuesday calling MacDonald an “anti-choice pic” for the court at a time when women’s reproductive rights are under fire. Critics point to MacDonald’s past work as chief of staff for anti-choice U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey, and for MacDonald’s representation of the Diocese of Manchester, which opposes abortion.
Concerns have also been raised about the number of legal matters MacDonald has overseen in his present post that could raise questions about recusing himself on the high court.
InDepthNH.org asked MacDonald why he didn’t mention in his judicial application his representation of Purdue Pharma while he was in private practice. MacDonald’s office suggested the question be referred to Sununu. MacDonald had promised when appointed attorney general that he would recuse himself from the state’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma for its alleged role in the opioid epidemic.
“Regarding your questions last night that you asked about Attorney General MacDonald: We expect some of these questions to come up at tomorrow’s hearing and encourage you to attend,” Vihstadt wrote.
Certainly, Wednesday’s public hearings before the Executive Council on both nominations are expected to be well-attended. MacDonald’s hearing is at 10 a.m. and Honigberg’s at 2 p.m. with a special meeting of the Governor and Council at 4 p.m. at the Executive Council Chambers at the State House.
Cryans said he isn’t expecting to vote on the nominations at the special meeting. He does expect a long day.
“If you’re coming, you might want to bring a lunch,” said Cryans.
Vihstadt did email a letter Gov. Sununu had already written to Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky answering questions that he had raised about when the Superior Court and Supreme Court positions had been posted and how many candidates had been interviewed for each.
“Given the importance of confidentiality for the Judicial Selection Commission’s process, it would not be appropriate to disclose exact details pertaining to the interviews I conducted for Superior Court nominees,” Sununu wrote.
“I will confirm that either I or my legal counsel John Formella interviewed multiple candidates for this vacancy and that the Judicial Selection Commission found Chairman Honigberg qualified and recommended him for consideration as a superior court justice.”
Based on his positive experience working with Honigberg, Sununu said he personally asked him to consider a judgeship. “He has proven himself to be a key member of the Executive Team which encouraged me to take the proactive approach to his nomination to the Superior Court,” Sununu wrote.
Sununu was more open to discussing his interviews for the Supreme Court in the letter to Volinsky. “I am providing some additional information due to the importance of this position,” Sununu wrote. “In total, I interviewed six candidates for the three vacancies, including the two candidates who were selected for the first two vacancies. All of these candidates were recommended to me by the Judicial Selection Commission.”
Sununu said he also had to decide on a chief justice and considered the four outside candidates who remained in contention for the current Supreme Court vacancy and also interviewed two current Supreme Court justices in spring of 2018 and invited them to submit letters if interested in being considered this spring.
While all candidates are talented and accomplished individuals, Sununu wrote that MacDonald is the right choice.
First, MacDonald was recommended for the position by the Judicial Selection Commission.
And secondly many people of all political persuasions and professional backgrounds reached out and offered unsolicited support of MacDonald as chief justice, Sununu wrote.
“This type of outreach was unprecedented for other candidates for the three Supreme Court vacancies which have occurred over the last two years and it underscores the wide and deep respect that AG MacDonald commands in the legal community and beyond,” Sununu wrote.