BRENTWOOD — A judge has reinstated Rockingham County Attorney James Reams, calling the attorney general's decision to suspend the longtime prosecutor as "unlawful" in the wake of the state seeking no criminal charges against him.
The decision marks a significant victory for Reams, who is fighting his removal from elected office amid an investigation that found he sexually harassed female employees, discriminated against others and misused a forfeiture account. His prosecutorial duties have been suspended since Nov. 6.
"Allegations, no matter how inflammatory, are not a substitute for evidence," Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara said.
Despite the court's decision, Reams, an eight-term Republican from Hampton, will not be able to immediately return to the job.
McNamara agreed to a 30-day stay of his decision so that the matter can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The high court will also have to decide whether to keep McNamara's order from going into effect while it considers whether the attorney general had the legal right to suspend Reams' prosecutorial duties.
Reams' lawyer, Michael Ramsdell, said on Thursday that the decision by McNamara affirmed what his client believed all along.
"The attorney general overstepped his bounds," Ramsdell said.
He predicted on Thursday that state prosecutors will now try to delay litigating the suspension so that Reams will effectively be kept off the job until his term expires in January 2015.
"They will take every bit of time they can," Ramsdell said.
McNamara said in the 13-page order it became clear on Monday that the removal proceedings against Reams could not happen prior to his elected term ending, resulting in a de-facto removal from office.
"Nowhere in the removal complaint does it allege that these allegations render Reams unable to function as a prosecuting attorney," McNamara said.
He also criticized the state for not bringing forward the removal complaint until March 11.
"The attorney general has refused to expedite the litigation," McNamara said.
Associate Attorney General Jane Young said that the state remains committed to expediting removal proceedings and other court action against Reams.
"In fairness to the investigation and in fairness to County Attorney Reams, we had to do an investigation as meticulously and methodically as we could," Young said of the five-month probe.
Young said McNamara's decision might now give prosecutors the option to seek an injunction to prevent Reams' reinstatement.
Prior to Thursday's decision, prosecutors expressed doubts over whether they could prevail in showing Reams' return to office would meet the legal standard of "irreparable harm" since he was already suspended from office.
"I can say it's an avenue we will consider as we go forward," Young said.
Attorney General Joseph Foster reviewed McNamara's decision on Thursday, and maintains that he has the legal authority to suspend Reams' prosecutorial authority based on civil complaints alleging misconduct in office, according to Young.
"He believes he has that continued authority under the statute," she said.
State prosecutors will ask the state Supreme Court to prevent McNamara's order from going into effect while it takes up the bigger legal question concerning the attorney general's authority to suspend county attorneys.
Ramsdell vowed to fight that effort while acknowledging the most significant aspect of the legal battle going forward may now be focused on whether the justices agree to stop McNamara's order.
"It's a question of how soon can a reinstated Jim Reams get back," Ramsdell said.