Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara upheld the rule of law on Thursday in a very important case. Though the immediate outcome - returning Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams to office - is disconcerting, letting the state attorney general make up the laws as he goes along would be worse.
Attorney General Joe Foster suspended Reams last November upon Foster's initiation of a criminal investigation into a host of allegations against the county attorney. The report Foster produced is shocking. In a March 11 complaint filed in superior court, Foster alleged that Reams kept $240,000 in public money for his own office's use, then knowingly deceived county officials about it, sexually harrassed numerous female emloyees for years, pressured female employees not to become pregnant and then retaliated against them if they did.
That is not a picture of the sort of person one would want in any position of authority. But Foster opted not to bring criminal charges against Reams. Instead, he simply kept Reams suspended while he petitioned the court to remove Reams for official misconduct. That was a mistake.
Under case law, the attorney general can suspend a county attorney while criminal charges are pending, but state law reserves for the superior court the authority to remove a county attorney. Foster essentially asserted to the court that he could suspend Reams indefinitely, even to the end of Reams' term, for any reason not prohibited by law, such as racial discrimination.
Judge McNamara rightly slapped down that huge legal power grab. Had he approved it, future attorneys general could remove county attorneys upon any pretext without having to prove a single accusation, thus nullifying the will of the people, who elect county attorneys.
That would have been a dangerous precedent. McNamara was right to reject it.