By Doug Ireland
---- — CONCORD — James Reams remains suspended after lawyers for the state and the longtime Rockingham County attorney battled yesterday over whether a judge should rule on his reinstatement request.
Merrimack Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara also debated whether he had the authority to decide if Reams should be allowed to return to his job.
“It seems that suspending the county attorney isn’t something the court can look at,” McNamara said.
But McNamara said a hearing on the issue would likely be held next month after requesting that attorneys submit more information to the court.
Earlier, the judge said he didn’t think he had the authority to overrule Attorney General Joseph Foster’s decision Nov. 6 to suspend Reams’ powers as a prosecutor.
“It seems to me the attorney general has the authority at all times,” McNamara said.
Foster took action against Reams after his office received a complaint from a former county attorney’s office employee three weeks ago. The attorney general’s office and FBI interviewed other former employees and asked the U.S. attorney’s office for help as well.
County commissioners then placed Reams on paid administrative leave, along with Deputy County Attorney Thomas Reid and an unidentified victim’s advocate.
Foster and U.S. Attorney John Kacavas announced that authorities, including the FBI, are investigating “management and operational issues” within the office, but would release no further details.
Michael Ramsdell, Reams’ attorney, claims Foster has no right to suspend an elected official unless there is criminal evidence. He also said Reams was punished without being given a chance to defend himself.
“He has overstepped his constitutional authority,” Ramsdell said. “It is incumbent upon this court to decide if the attorney general abused his discretion.”
Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said there was no legal basis for the judge to hear Reams’ request.
“There is no need for a hearing today,” she said.
Edwards said no action was needed since the county attorney’s office continues to operate following the appointment of Senior Assistant Attorney General James Boffetti as interim county attorney in Reams’ absence.
McNamara was the judge who approved Boffetti’s emergency appointment last week. Ramsdell said that order should be vacated, allowing Reams to return to the office he has led since 1998.
“I thought I had the authority to act and I acted,” McNamara said. “The only purpose of the hearing today is to determine if it was correct.”
Ramsdell has defended Reams’ work as county attorney. He also defended him against reports that female attorneys in the office complained to Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, a year ago that they were not being treated fairly.
Ramsdell said Wednesday the majority of attorneys in the office are women, including two of three team leaders.
Reams remained silent throughout the nearly hourlong court proceeding. He declined to comment after it ended.
“You will have to talk to my lawyer,” he said.
Ramsdell said they have not been told specifically why Reams was suspended and there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
“We would like to know what the allegations are,” he said. “We don’t know what he’s accused of.”
There has been only one other occasion in 200 years that a New Hampshire county attorney has been removed from office and that 1975 case involved criminal charges, Ramsdell said.
He said he will file a declaratory judgment with the court to formally contest the decision to suspend Reams.
Reams and Reid are being paid while suspended. Reams is paid $85,000 a year.