By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Third Circuit Court Judge Melissa Beth Countway of Alton has been nominated by Gov. Chris Sununu to be an Associate Supreme Court Justice.
If confirmed to the highest court in the state, she would replace Gary Hicks who is retiring on Nov. 30 due to age limitations.
Previously a Belknap County Attorney from 2011 to 2017 when her name was Melissa Guldbrandsen she said she has the ability to “think on her feet” “a strong moral compass” and the ability to analyze cases and the facts to come to a decision.
Countway is a graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1993 and did her undergraduate work at the University of New Hampshire, graduating with a bachelor degree in math in 1993 and a Master’s Degree in Education in 1994.
She was admitted to the New Hampshire Bar in 2002 and became a Circuit Court judge in Ossipee in 2017.
She began applying for Supreme Court judge positions in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.
A public hearing on Countway’s nomination will be held before the Executive Council votes on confirmation.
It would be Sununu’s fifth nominee to the five-member Supreme Court.
She would serve until the age of 70.
Executive Councilor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cinde Warmington said she would be scrutinizing this nomination and welcomed meeting with the candidate particularly as it relates to freedoms, and a statement was also issued by Planned Parenthood of Northern New England Action Fund on the need to look closely.
“This nomination will impact every single Granite Stater – today and for decades to come. It is important we take a thorough look at this nominee, as she will be in a position to directly influence both the breadth and endurance of our freedom for generations. I look forward to meeting with her over the coming weeks,” Warmington said.
“As I’ve said before, we can no longer rely on the U.S. Supreme Court to protect our freedoms or constitutional rights. Now more than ever, our state courts, and the New Hampshire Supreme Court in particular, are critical to the future of our civil rights and liberties. This includes the freedom for New Hampshire’s citizens to make our own health care decisions without government interference. It includes our right to vote, our right to public education, our right to privacy, and our right to access public accommodations, employment, and housing without discrimination and much more.”
“That is why I will firmly stand up for the people of New Hampshire in seeking a justice who respects the law and precedent, has an independent voice, and is committed to protecting and enhancing freedom for all,” Warmington said.
Prior to her time on the Council, Warmington, an attorney, spent decades in health care advocating for the expansion of substance use disorder treatment services, increased funding for mental health services, and increased access to telehealth services.
Kayla Montgomery, Vice President of public affairs for Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund, also stressed the need to fully vet the nomination.
“The legal landscape for reproductive rights and freedoms in our country is in chaos. With no federal constitutional protections for abortion access, and New Hampshire only one of three states where abortion is legal but not protected by law, it is imperative that all judicial nominees be firmly and sincerely committed to protecting our freedom to access the full range of reproductive health care, including abortion. With all protections for reproductive rights now falling to individual states, it is critical for the public to have a full picture of where nominees for New Hampshire’s Supreme Court stand. We look forward to a clear and comprehensive discussion of the nominee’s position on abortion rights.”
James Kennedy of Concord was nominated as justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court.
Don Kreis also was confirmed for another four-year term as consumer advocate, which represents the interest of the public before the Public Utilities Commission.
ANTHEM CLAIM PAYMENT BACKLOG
Warmington asked D.J. Bettencourt, the new Commissioner of Insurance for an update on the longstanding backlog of health claims with the licensed insurance provider Anthem.
She said it is having an impact on patients who go in for further treatment.
He said New Hampshire’s carriers overall are paying claims faster than average and addressing the issue with Anthem is one of his top priorities.
Warmington said she heard $300 million is backed up and owed to the hospitals.
Bettencourt said the life and health unit within his department is now fully staffed and he questioned that number.
“I believe the hospitals are owed some money,” he said but disputed the $300 million. “But you have to dig a little bit more into the numbers.”
He said denied claims should be processed differently.
Bettencourt said he wants to hear directly from the Hospital Association and is convening a meeting.
Bettencourt said he is hearing “two wildly different stories” from the hospitals and Anthem.
Executive Councilor Ted Gatsas of Manchester, a Republican, said when a constituent has a denied claim that is more of a concern for him than a hospital or provider “when he is being chased for money,” and said one who called him is worried he will have to file bankruptcy.
“I am concerned about the little guy,” Gatsas said. “And if you say we are stuck in a swamp we need to throw him a lifeline.”
Bettencourt urged those constituents to call his office.
He said he is worried about the smaller providers as well as individuals.
“I’m limited in telling you the formal action the department is considering,” Bettencourt said. “I don’t want to be talking about this in a year’s time. I am sick of this conversation.”
USE OF TERRIERS AND STERILIZATION OF RATS AT THE PRISON
Helen Hanks, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, was asked about rodent infestation at the state prison for men by Executive Councilor Joe Kenney of Wakefield who is a Republican. He said he heard from a father of an inmate who was a constituent from Newmarket.
Hanks said there was never a problem until COVID-19 when restaurants closed and the rats rushed to the prison for a bite to eat.
Hanks said they are in a better position now that they have brought in the use of dogs and have created a sterilization program so that there are no more baby rats running around.
But it continues to be a problem that the prison is dealing with on North State Street in Concord, but not at the other facilities.
With cold weather already here, the concern for adequate heating assistance for 30,000 households who have had help through the LIHEAP program in the past was brought up by Councilor Gatsas.
He was told the state is in good shape with just under $30 million coming in and especially with carry-over funds from the last winter of about $25 million.
LACONIA STATE SCHOOL
The state is still waiting on a closing date for the former Laconia State School but there is no date yet for transfer of the tract to a developer for $21.5 million.
“I believe we have agreed in principle to everything,” said Commissioner of Administrative Services Charlie Arlinghaus.
Has the deed been cleared? asked Warmington.
Technically, no, Arlinghaus said.
Only one title restriction issue is related to a snowmobile trail that goes through the property, Arlinghaus said.
“We are starting to work on closing documents,” he said and there is a meeting on Nov. 29.
He said there are two deposit checks and conditions that they are refundable but he did not know offhand, the amount totals being held.
There is no deadline for the purchase and sales agreement to expire but the state had a Nov. 10 goal of closing, which will expire.
Sununu said there would be no extensions.
Gatsas said they can close in two years. Yes or no?
“Technically, I suppose.”
Asked by Gatsas if they have the money for the ambitious housing development plan?
“I know they can come up with the purchase price. Beyond that, I don’t care,” Arlinghaus said.
Members of the Executive Council voted to approve $9,789,398 in additional funding for The Doorways program. Launched in 2019, The Doorway transforms New Hampshire’s treatment and recovery approach to helping individuals with an opioid use disorder or other substance use disorder.
With the funds allocated, the state will invest a total of $57,826,595 to ensure access to substance use support services across the State, decrease the rate of fatal overdose, and increase access to substance use related health care. Approximately 24,000 individuals will be served by The Doorways between September 30, 2023 and September 29, 2024.
The Executive Council voted to approve $2,464,088 in funding for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (NHCADSV) in support of a statewide program which seeks to improve responses and support to survivors of domestic violence and their children.