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Senate trial looms for N.H. chief justice

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CONCORD, N.H. — The chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court — the state's first impeached official in two centuries — is looking forward to the chance to defend himself at a Senate trial, his lawyer says.

The House overwhelmingly impeached Chief Justice David Brock on Wednesday. Lawmakers accused him of ethics violations ranging from perjury to letting disqualified justices take part in case discussions.

Brock's lawyers have said the process in the House did not give him a fair chance to defend himself and say he has done nothing wrong.

"The fact is that we have not had the opportunity to present information, that the chief justice has not had a voice," said attorney David Barry. "For the first time, he will have a voice."

The last New Hampshire official impeached was Supreme Court Justice Woodbury Langdon in 1790, for bad attendance. He resigned before his Senate trial.

Brock, who has been chief justice since 1986, is accused of improperly calling a lower-court judge about a politically connected lawsuit; talking to another justice about the handling of that justice's divorce; lying under oath during the investigation; and allowing justices who had been disqualified from hearing certain cases because of conflicts of interest to comment on impending rulings.

The investigation has already forced the resignation of one justice and placed two others under a cloud.

GOP Rep. Albert Hamel said the House could restore the high court's moral authority only by voting for impeachment: "I hope that we have equal fortitude, guts, courage, to do what we have to do in this situation."

Republicans control both the Senate and House. Brock is also a Republican.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last month, Brock apologized for poor judgment but said he meant no harm and reacted to a sensitive situation concerning a colleague's divorce case as best he could.

The four impeachment articles accuse Brock of phoning a judge in 1987 to remind him that a state senator involved in a lawsuit could help win pay raises for the court's members. He has denied making the call.

The articles also charge that Brock in February asked for then-Supreme Court Justice Stephen Thayer's opinion about the appointment of an appeals panel in Thayer's divorce case and later discussed the panel with Thayer privately. Thayer resigned earlier this year to avoid possible criminal prosecution.

Disclosure of Thayer's intervention prompted a group of ex-wives of other New Hampshire judges to threaten a lawsuit in April. The women argued they were unable to get competent lawyers or decent divorce settlements because of their husbands' influence.

Brock's lawyers and other supporters said the Judiciary Committee lowered the threshold for impeachment too far. Historically, they said, officials have been impeached for willful misconduct, not poor judgment.

They said there was no evidence Brock committed any impeachable offenses, which the state Constitution defines as "bribery, corruption, malpractice or maladministration."

On Monday, Brock said that he would consider resigning if he could do so with dignity, and only if the House did not adopt the article of impeachment accusing him of lying. If he resigns now, before he turns 65, he will get no pension, unless the Legislature changes the law. The House voted Wednesday against doing that.

Earlier in the investigation, Justices Sherman Horton and John Broderick were accused of ethics violations for not immediately blowing the whistle on Thayer. But the Judiciary Committee deciding against impeaching or reprimanding the two justices, saying months of publicity had damaged their reputations enough.

On Wednesday, the House rejected a bid to impeach Horton and Broderick.

On the Net: Supreme Court: www.state.nh.us/courts/supreme.htm

New Hampshire government: www.state.nh.us