Embattled Rockingham County Attorney James Reams heads to Merrimack County Superior Court on Thursday to upend his suspension by Attorney General Joe Foster, challenging whether the state can temporarily remove him from an elected position.
The court battle may largely hinge on a 1975 state Supreme Court case which resolved that then-Attorney General Warren Rudman could suspend Grafton County Attorney John Eames after he was charged with exhibiting two X-rated movies at his family's movie theater in Bethlehem.
A jury later cleared Eames of misdemeanor pornography charges, prompting Rudman to re-instate him as county attorney, according to news reports.
Unlike Eames, Reams faces no criminal charges and has not been accused of any specific wrongdoing.
"In the more than 200 years since the effective date of the New Hampshire Constitution, the only temporary removal of a county attorney upheld by the New Hampshire Supreme Court was premised not only on criminal charges pending against the county attorney but also a prompt trial of the pending charges," Reams' attorney Michael Ramsdell said in court papers.
Foster suspended Reams last week, hours before announcing a state and federal investigation into operational and managerial issues within the Rockingham County Attorney's Office.
Ramsdell said during an interview Wednesday that Reams is "very much looking forward" to his day in court, and learning more about the allegations that set off the investigation.
"He was suspended and barred from the office by the county without the benefit of being told anything," Ramsdell said. "To this day, he hasn't been given the opportunity to respond."
Reams was notified about his suspension through an e-mail last Wednesday night, which contained a pair of letters from Foster and the county commissioners, according to court documents. He was also ordered to return any county property in his possession.
When Reams asked the attorney general about the nature of the investigation, he was told only that "there would be time for discussion later," according to Ramsdell. He said that Reams, if asked, would cooperate with investigators.
Merrimack Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara approved Foster's petition to appoint Jim Boffetti as the interim county attorney, citing Reams' suspension and a decision by county commissioners to bar him from entering county offices.
Ramsdell is arguing that county commissioners violated the New Hampshire Constitution by forbidding Reams to enter county property.
"By barring County Attorney Reams from the Rockingham County Attorney's Office and stripping him of his Rockingham County property, the commissioners directly interfered with County Attorney Reams' constitutional law enforcement obligations and duties to the citizens of Rockingham County," Ramsdell said in court papers.
County Commissioner Kevin Coyle defended the commission's actions on Wednesday.
"The decisions we made were based on what we were told by the attorney general and the U.S. attorney about the investigation," Coyle said. "We did not suspend him, but the office building is under the control of the commissioners. We did that at the request of the U.S. attorney and the attorney general."
Commissioners also put Deputy County Attorney Tom Reid and a victim-witness advocate on paid administrative leave.
Ramsdell said he disagrees that Foster or the commissioners have the authority to interfere with Reams' job status.
"The county attorney is a constitutional officer, not just an agency head," Ramsdell said. "He is elected by the citizens of Rockingham County."
Ramsdell contends that a 2004 state Supreme Court decision about a dispute between Rockingham County commissioners and then-county sheriff Dan Linehan concluded that commissioners may not interfere with a constitutional officer's law enforcement duties.
If a judge decides to overturn last week's court order, it would restore Reams to his elected office — a position he has held since 1998.
Ramsdell also addressed recent criticism his client has endured in the wake of suspension, including his traveling to conferences, and reports that female employees complained to a Portsmouth state representative about a hostile work environment.
"I can tell you the county attorney would disagree that anything unpleasant happened or there is an unhealthy work environment," Ramsdell said. "The majority of prosecutors in the office are female attorneys and two of the three team leaders are female."
As for traveling to conferences, Ramsdell said the trips were all approved by county commissioners and "much of it was not done at the county's expense."
Ramsdell said organizations asking him to participate in conferences have paid Reams' travel expenses, and Reams has brought back valuable training to his employees.
- James Kimble, Union Leader Correspondent