By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Gov. Chris Sununu’s nominee to become a Superior Court judge who is the current Rockingham County Attorney, Patricia Conway, was lauded at a public hearing before the state’s Executive Council Wednesday in Concord.
But there were some concerns.
The New Hampshire Bar Association Board of Governors gave her qualified support for the role but with reservations for her impartiality and fairness, Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington of Concord said.
Conway, a resident of Salem, who was first elected to the post of Rockingham County Attorney in 2014 after being an assistant county attorney for 16 years, said she thought there may be some who would see her as focused on the role of prosecutor, which she understood.
While she said some may be concerned about her lack of civil law experience, she could learn and that in the law it is really about placing facts to the law, be it civil or criminal.
A graduate of Suffolk University Law School, she was admitted to the New Hampshire Bar in 1997 and spent her entire career as a prosecutor, handling cases of sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking, and manslaughter at the county level.
Sununu nominated her in March citing her hard work ethic and the respect she enjoys.
The hearing was held in the auditorium at the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles with about 25 people attending in person and a number providing testimony by phone.
“I am super excited and a bit nervous…It is a lot different advocating for yourself,” Conway said.
She spoke of her father, the son of immigrants who had to quit school to support his family upon the death of his father. He was a chef with a hard work ethic and she and her twin sister learned from him that getting up early in the morning and working hard builds character.
She said he taught her those values and she has lived by them. Her husband and two children were by her side for the public hearing.
“I have worked in public service my entire adult life,” Conway said.
Conway said she chose to run for county attorney “to help people” and is currently serving her fourth term with a staff of 39 for 36 communities and manages a budget of almost $4 million.
She addressed concern for her limited amount of civil law experience.
Many judges including Judge Tina Nadeau, chief justice of the NH Superior Courts, had no civil experience either, she said.
“At this point of my life and my career, I am well suited,” to be a superior court judge. She said she wants the job for the same reason she has wanted to be a prosecutor – to help people.
Councilor David Wheeler asked what Conway thought about the Second Amendment to the Constitution related to the right to bear arms.
“I own a firearm. I believe it is an individual right,” Conway said.
“Do you believe the Constitution can be suspended in a state of emergency?” Wheeler asked.
She said she did not believe her personal beliefs were relevant to the job but supported the governor’s actions related to COVID-19.
He asked about mandatory reporting of a mere suspicion of child abuse.
“I think false allegations hurt everyone,” Conway said, noting that bringing charges needs to done very carefully, something others said she has done well over her years as a prosecutor.
Councilor Janet Stevens congratulated Conway for her nomination and said she has served her constituents in Rockingham County very well over her many years.
She asked about several past cases primarily involving child abuse.
Councilor Warmington of Concord, the sole Democrat on the Council, thanked Conway for meeting with her extensively before the hearing and asked about the issue of bail.
Conway said when someone repeatedly fails to appear, the court needs to find ways to motivate, and cash bail might be a solution. but the issue then becomes, how much money to set.
Conway said it might be a good idea for a judge to ask how much can a person afford.
Warmington noted the “elephant in the room” is the Bar Association Board of governors finding her to be qualified but with reservations about impartiality and fairness.
“Can you add any insight?” Warmington asked.
Conway said: “They may feel it difficult for me to be impartial in criminal cases. I think it is fair when you are looking from the outside in.” But experience, she said, has taught her that putting people in jail is not always the right decision.
“Do you know of any other reason?” Warmington asked.
Conway responded: “No.”
Warmington said, “On the first day you took office you fired Jerome Blanchard,” a whistleblower for Conway’s predecessor who claimed retaliation. The case was settled for $80,000, Warmington said.
“Obviously this would be concerning,” Warmington said. “Can you explain for us your actions?”
Conway said it was absolutely false that she fired him for retaliation.
She said she made the termination to protect the office and it resulted in a better office.
“I am proud of my staff today,” Conway said.
Warmington said she also came across a newspaper article noting Conway had not voted for six years in Salem but cast a ballot in Atkinson because she was there helping her elderly father vote.
“Yes,” Conway said.
About 15 people signed up to speak, the first seven supporting the nomination.
State Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, spoke in support of Conway’s nomination.
He said she has the experience, temperament, belief in public service, and respect for the rule of law.
The Council could vote in two weeks on the nomination.