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Boston trial lawyer Joseph D. Steinfield was looking forward to a nice, relaxing spring and summer when the call from New Hampshire came. Just one day earlier, a federal judge in Puerto Rico had granted Steinfield’s motion to dismiss a case against his client, the University of Puerto Rico, brought by a disgruntled former chancellor who claimed that he had been improperly dismissed. That ruling ended a prolonged period of activity in the 1st Circuit — the sunniest destination for Steinfield. The April 8 phone call from New Hampshire came from the Democratic leader of the state’s House of Representatives, Peter Burling, whom Steinfield has known for years. Burling phoned to tell Steinfield that the full House membership had passed a resolution ordering its Judiciary Committee to probe whether the conduct of justices on the state’s Supreme Court, first brought to public attention by a state attorney general’s report, warranted impeachment. “He called to tell me that the House had decided to hire counsel and that they’d decided to go outside New Hampshire,” Steinfield says. “The bar there is quite small, and it was felt that no New Hampshire lawyer should be asked to take this on.” In turning to Steinfield, the lawmakers were calling on a native son. Steinfield was born and raised in Claremont, N.H., and maintains a summer residence there. As special counsel to the committee, Steinfield had an impartial, nonpartisan role. A large part of his work, he says, focused on finding historical precedents — a difficult task because they are scarce. One New Hampshire Supreme Court justice has been impeached, but that was 210 years ago. And the justice, John Pickering, opted to resign, rather than go through a Senate trial. This time, another justice — W. Stephen Thayer III — had resigned, but he did so before the House’s adoption of four articles of impeachment on July 12. Thayer had been the subject of Attorney General Philip T. McLaughlin’s initial investigation, which had been prompted by a memorandum from Supreme Court clerk Howard Zibel about Thayer’s alleged activity in trying to influence the outcome of a case from which he had been recused. New Hampshire’s curious, and perhaps unique, practice regarding the liberal degree to which recused justices can comment on the very cases in which they have a conflict stands at the center of the current impeachment proceedings. “The problem arose because the New Hampshire practice has been for disqualified justices to attend the case conference — this is undisputed — not only to receive copies of draft opinions, but to go to the conferences and speak at the conferences,” Steinfield says. The Thayer matter, he adds, “according to certain witnesses, involved Justice Thayer speaking not just about crossing t’s and dotting i’s, but actually about what the penalty should be in that case, which was a disciplinary case involving a lawyer.” A second area of inquiry dealt with Thayer’s divorce case; the proceedings were acrimonious and public, and his wife appealed its outcome all the way to the Supreme Court. In such a case, not only was Thayer recused, but so were his four fellow justices. The responsibility for naming a substitute panel of judges rested with the chief justice, David Brock, and it was his response to Thayer v. Thayer that brought the investigation his way. According to Steinfield, the justices and their counsel met on Feb. 4 to discuss agenda items being brought by the counsel. The divorce matter was not on the schedule. Steinfield says that at the meeting, Brock announced that he was appointing two Superior Court judges to sit on a panel to hear the divorce appeal; they would join three others who had sat on a previous appeal on an issue that had arisen in the Thayer case last fall. On July 12, the House voted to impeach Brock, setting the stage for a Senate trial. With that action, Steinfield’s role shifted significantly. Now he is counsel to the House, and when the trial begins in the Senate, he will serve essentially as the prosecutor. “Other states will be watching,” he says.

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