Separate Seen Better For Courts

Legislation Seeks To Void 1992
Mandated Merger of Hampton, Exeter

By Lara Bricker

Hampton Union, Friday, March 19, 2004

HFD STATION #2 & LEGION POST 35.
Then, c. 1940s. [Photo not in original article]

HAMPTON - Area police.chiefs met with lawmakers Tuesday to discuss possible legislation that would ensure the Hampton and Exeter district courts remain separate facilities.

The discussion came as the state Bureau of Court Facilities continues with plans to obtain land for a new consolidated district court as mandated by earlier legislation. Sites in Seabrook, Epping and Hampton have been mentioned. Police chiefs and court employees across the area have been vocal in their opposition to a joint court, citing problems with police being out of town for extended periods of time and the volume of cases a larger court would have to process.

The Hampton Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Monday to support a letter to lawmakers in which it asked for the court to remain in Hampton.

State Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, said Wednesday he plans to co-sponsor an amendment to House Bill 369, which seeks to prevent consolidation of the Henniker 'and Hillsborough district courts, that would also prevent consolidation of Exeter and Hampton district courts.

Prescott met with area police chiefs Tuesday at the request of Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams, who has sought to keep a district court in Hampton. The decision to combine the two courts was the result of legislation in 1992.

"Since 1992, there's been lots of demographic changes in the region and it's not appropriate at this time," Prescott said of one-court proposal. The state senator expects to introduce the amendment within the next few weeks.

Both the Hampton and Exeter courts are housed in town-owned buildings that they have outgrown and are leased at a cost to the state. The state pays Exeter $1,685.11 per month for space in the bottom of the Town Hall, and Hampton $2,272.08 per month.

THE HAMPTON DISTRICT COURT.
Now, 2004. [Photo by Jay Reiter]

The two courts serve state police and 14 towns, Exeter,Epping, Newfields, East Kingston, Kensington, Brentwood, South Hampton, Newmarket, Fremont, Stratham, Hampton, Hampton Falls, North Hampton and Seabrook.

Seabrook voters passed a warrant article at Town Meeting that would give selectmen authority to negotiate an agreement with the state court system to use a parcel on Route 107 for a new court.

Seabrook Police Chief Bill Baker said he is not in favor of consolidating the courts and would like to see a new Hampton District Court in Seabrook.

"Clearly, we are in desperate need of a new courthouse in Hampton. Anybody that has seen the property will certainly find it atrocious," Baker said of the existing Hampton court, which is on the second floor of a building with no handicapped access. "It's an old antiquated building. For a great period of time now we've been in need of a new courthouse in this area."

Baker said the Seabrook community had been "very generous" to consider giving the state land for a courthouse and hopes the state will seriously consider the option.

"Obviously, it would be advantageous for us to have it," he said.

Hampton Police Capt. James Sullivan said his department wants to see the court remain in Hampton. The town could see increased costs if a court was outside of town as police are due mileage reimbursement if they travel outside Hampton for court.

"We absolutely want to see it remain in Hampton; we also believe they should be separate courts due to the volume (of cases)," Sullivan said. "We bring a large number of folks to court and it's a proximity issue for us. If we go out of town, there are a number of issues that are a concern for us, we lose the officers and the coverage out of our community for that time period."

Larger doesn't necessarily mean better when it comes to district court, said Sullivan, who prosecuted cases for his department for a number of years.

"They're able to deal with people's problems on a much more individual basis," Sullivan said of the separate district courts. "The clerks, the assistant clerks, they do a superior job."

The merging of the courts has been ordered by the state Legislature, said Peter Goodwin, administrator of the state Bureau of Court Facilities. He added he is simply following the law with the plans.

The Legislature approved $165,000 for 2003-04 to fund the site and design work for a new combineu court. Prescott said if the amendment to keep the two courts separate passes, that money will not lapse and will be available to study future designs.

Goodwin said he expected to schedule meetings in the area with law enforcement to gain input on where a new court should be located. Goodwin said last week he has not scheduled any meetings yet.

Court officials say both courts have a large enough caseload to support individual buildings. Exeter District Court clerk Carol Wright has said that court handles an average of 100 criminal cases each day, which doesn't even take into account the civil and domestic cases the court sees.