By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – There will be no more vacancies on the state’s Circuit Court if the Executive Council approves three new justices who have been nominated by the governor, which could come as early as Wednesday.
After years with many vacancies and a large backlog in cases, the state will have 38 full-time justices with 26 of them – more than half – having fewer than five years’ experience, said David D. King, administrative justice of the state Circuit Court.
He said the average age of those justices – who will be able to serve until age 70 – is likely in their early 50s.
Public hearings on the nominations of Michael Zaino of Hampton, Philip Cross of Portsmouth, and Daniel Swegart of Warner were held before the Executive Council on Friday in their chambers at the State House.
The council also held hearings on Daniel Goldner, a member of the PUC to chair that utility regulator, and Carleton Simpson who has also been tapped by Gov. Chris Sununu to be a member of the PUC. The council had an opportunity to hear from the advocates and opponents of each of the candidates.
There were no opponents. The council also had an opportunity to ask questions of the nominees.
Swegart is currently a clerk of court in Cheshire and Sullivan counties.
“My ultimate professional and personal goal is to serve the public in a way that is direct, immediate, and meaningful to me and my community. A judicial appointment would allow me to perfectly capture these goals for the remainder of my career,” Swegart wrote in his application and questionnaire for New Hampshire Judicial Candidates.
“The best judges are able to balance firmness and intellectual decisiveness with courtesy and understanding,” he continued.
He earned a law degree, cum laude at New England School of Law, and did his undergraduate work at Saint Anselm College.
Philip Cross of Portsmouth is also being considered as a Circuit Court judge.
He is presently a referee/hearings officer for the New Hampshire Circuit Court, Family Division. Cross earned his law degree at the University of Maine School of Law and did his undergraduate studies at the University of Vermont.
The list of those lined up to support his nomination was a who’s who list of New Hampshire’s top lawyers and judges, including recently retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Justice Robert J. Lynn, now a Republican state representative from Windham.
Edwin Kelly, retired circuit court judge, said he has only come to the council four times to support a nominee but he said Cross was extremely qualified and “checked all boxes” for a judge in the Circuit Court.
In his application, Cross wrote: “Helping people and families resolve their differences, move forward and rebuild their lives is far and away from the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. And I cannot imagine doing more important work. As a judge in the Circuit Court, hearing from and meeting with individuals from all kinds of backgrounds and helping them with all kinds of day-to-day conflicts, is the best way for me to continue doing what I love.”
He said he believed his work as a marital master and referee/hearings officer is the most important accomplishment for the Executive Council to consider.
Cross also thanked his wife, Lynn, and family for helping him and for his father, the “least judgmental” person he knows, and who also forgetfully left him once at a fair at the age of 5. Cross painted houses, traveled the country and lived in Seattle and Colorado and met his wife-to-be on a rafting trip.
Zaino, of Hampton, has experience as a prosecutor and private litigator, and said he knows he wants to serve his neighbors as a judge.
He said ever since he began to study politics and law he has regarded the role of a judge as a special type of individual and said the attributes he has which should be considered for the bench are humility, patience, and wisdom.
Attorneys Ray Mello of Nashua and Robin Melone of Manchester spoke as individuals in support of Zaino’s accomplishments and demeanor with Mello saying that Zaino was an excellent choice.
The two nominees related to the PUC also appeared without any detractors and only praise from those who spoke at the public hearings.
Goldner has already been confirmed to the PUC and was subject to a first public hearing in April. He has been a member of the PUC but the Attorney General said a hearing was required for the governor’s nomination of him as the chair.
If confirmed he will replace Dianne Martin of Deerfield as chair and will receive a salary of $132,886.
His resume indicates that in addition to being on the PUC, he is an entrepreneur and president of the 1987 Windmill Farm LLC from December 2019 to the present. It is a 74-acre farm in Clearfield, Iowa producing corn and soybeans with bin storage and two industrial wind turbines, and a 180-acre farm in Sharon City, Iowa.
During the course of the day, more than 100 people attended the five hearings with few if any wearing face masks. The State House did have visitors and tours with neither the tour guides nor the tourists wearing face masks. The CDC recommends mask wearing indoors in areas where COVID-19 community transmission is considered substantial or high. The CDC considers all of New Hampshire and most of the rest of New England to have high community transmission.
There was no written guidance on COVID-19 at the doors nor masks or hand sanitizer offered, however in offices such as the Council Chambers, there was sanitizer available.
While four of the councilors attended in person, Executive Councilor David Wheeler attended remotely by phone from outside Richmond, Va., on a family trip to meet a new grandchild.
The council will hold its next meeting on Nov. 10 at Department of Environmental Services headquarters on Hazen Drive in Concord at 10 a.m. The meeting is open to the public.