BRENTWOOD — A judge has suggested that the Attorney General's Office may no longer have the legal right to keep Rockingham County Attorney James Reams suspended while the state seeks to remove him from office.
State prosecutors filed a court complaint on March 11 to permanently remove Reams from elected office, citing an investigation that revealed allegations of sexual harassment and misuse of a legally questionable forfeiture fund used to pay for office equipment, training and work travel.
Judge Richard McNamara said in a 12-page court order that because the state's investigation did not result in criminal charges, the Attorney General may not have the authority to keep Reams out of elected office.
"We believe the court has it right," Reams' lawyer Michael Ramsdell said in an interview on Friday.
Reams is heading back to Merrimack County Superior Court on Monday seeking reinstatement, which would allow him to finish out the remaining 9 months of his two-year term. He is challenging his suspension through a pair of lawsuits filed against the Attorney General and the Rockingham County Commissioners.
Much of the legal wrangling to date has relied upon a 1975 state Supreme Court case that decided the state Attorney General can suspend a sitting county attorney so long as criminal charges were pending.
State prosecutors revealed last month that their investigation found Reams' actions amounted to misconduct, but not criminal charges.
If McNamara maintains his view about Reams current legal standing, it could mark an abrupt reversal for the eight-term Republican who has been suspended from office since the night of Nov. 6.
The 12-page order, issued by McNamara on Wednesday, denied a request by Reams to obtain investigatory records compiled during the five-month investigation into his office.
But the order also laid out McNamara's thinking about the larger issue regarding Reams' suspension, setting off a flurry of legal filings by state prosecutors aiming to keep Reams from returning to his post.
McNamara suggested that among the potential decisions he could reach on Monday, one of them would be to reinstate Reams so long as he could show that he was the elected county attorney, and no criminal charges are pending against him.
Associate Attorney General Jane Young said prosecutors asked the court to reconsider the order issued on Wednesday.
Before McNamara's order reached the Attorney General's Office, state prosecutors had already filed arguments asserting why they believe Foster can keep Reams suspended in the wake of removal proceedings, according to Young.
The state is arguing that Foster's authority to suspend a county attorney is no different than the state Supreme Court's ability to suspend a judge.
McNamara said Reams could still possibly be kept out of office if the state sought an injunction.
The state would have to demonstrate that it would suffer irreparable harm if the request was not approved, that it had no other legal remedy and that the request was in the public interest, according to McNamara.
Reacting to that order, Ramsdell filed a new legal brief on Friday asking that Reams be immediately reinstated, saying the court could find no basis to continue the suspension.
"We believe that we will be able to show that there are no criminal charges and that Jim Reams is the duly elected county attorney in Rockingham County," Ramsdell said on Friday.
McNamara said in his order that Foster may indeed have control over law enforcement operations across the state, but "the Legislature has not seen fit to provide the Attorney General with statutory authority to remove a county attorney."
County Commissioner Kevin Coyle said McNamara's order raises concerns about the prospect of Reams being returned to the office where some of his subordinates complained that they were sexually harassed by him.
"I would be seriously concerned for the personnel in that office," Coyle said, after reading McNamara's order on Friday. "It's akin to allowing a domestic abuser back in the house while a trial is pending."
McNamara said based on his findings to date, he is not inclined to listen to any more evidence about Reams' suspension on Monday.
Reams, who is not seeking re-election, has denied any wrongdoing. He expects to file a response to the complaint seeking his removal by April 25.