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N.H.'s Top Judge Acquitted of Misconduct

October 11, 2000|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CONCORD, N.H. — A crisis that has crippled New Hampshire's highest court for nearly six months came to a close Tuesday when Supreme Court Chief Justice David Brock was acquitted overwhelmingly of four articles of impeachment.

Moments after the final vote, the 64-year-old Brock--who tenaciously faced down the first such trial in state history--smiled and hugged his tearful wife.

"Your faith in me, my integrity and our court system gave me the strength to see this through," Brock told supporters at the state Capitol.

In July, the state House of Representatives voted to impeach Brock on charges ranging from lying to House investigators to giving another justice inside information in the justice's divorce case. But after a three-week trial, the state Senate failed to muster the requisite two-thirds vote to complete the impeachment process.

Most senators said the charges against Brock were not serious enough to warrant impeachment.

"For us to convict, there must be serious misconduct," said Sen. Burt Cohen, a Democrat. "Poor judgment is not enough."

Michael Madigan, a Washington lawyer who represented Brock, said that, at a time when public confidence in the legal system often wavers, one aspect of the Brock case set an important precedent.

In the fourth impeachment article, Brock was charged with letting justices comment on cases from which they had been disqualified. Madigan said that, although officially frowned upon, the practice was not unheard of outside New Hampshire.

As a result of the New Hampshire case, state lawmakers are weighing legislation to ban the practice, and Madigan said he is aware of at least two states--Nevada and Michigan--that are tightening their recusal process "to try to be sure there is not even the possible appearance of impropriety."

The case that shook this state's judiciary boiled to the surface early this year after the divorce of Stephen Thayer, then an associate Supreme Court justice. After his ex-wife appealed the divorce, Thayer strenuously objected to the appointment of a judge selected to hear the appeal. Rather than enforcing the selection, Brock put the appointment on hold. The action of both judges so troubled court clerk Howard Zibel that he reported the incident to the state attorney general.

The subsequent investigation prompted Thayer's resignation in March in lieu of criminal prosecution, as well as the Legislature's impeachment inquiry.

In testimony last week, Brock acknowledged making errors in judgment and offering misstatements during the investigation. But he denied lying, and he said he misspoke once because of confusing questions.

Thayer also testified last week and said he had an incriminating conversation with Brock about judicial appointments to the divorce case. Brock heatedly denied that any conversation took place. Thayer, however, said he had no incentive to lie because he could be charged with perjury if he did.

In the end, legislators who acted both as judge and jury were left mainly with deciding whether they believed Brock was an honest man. Senators rejected each of the four articles against him.

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