Private lawyers OK’d to defend state in education suit | Courts

The Four Percent

Cheshire Superior Court Judge David Ruoff will allow the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office to hire private attorneys to defend the state in the ConVal education funding lawsuit, but he warned the lawyers might have to work for free.

The Contoocook Valley School District, or ConVal, is suing the state claiming that the annual per pupil adequacy grant of $3,600 should be closer to $10,000, based on the state’s own funding formula and expense data.

Dozens of school districts have joined ConVal’s lawsuit.

The Attorney General’s Office wants to bring in private attorneys John Munich and Nicci Warr from the St. Louis corporate law firm, Stinson. New Hampshire’s Senior Assistant Attorney General Anthony Galdieri said Munich and Warr are subject matter experts and will provide assistance for the state in a complex case, though paying for the private lawyers remains an open question.

In a motion Galdieri filed seeking permission to add Warr and Munich to the case, he said he could tap into the funds the state sets aside for outside services. However, those funds are not guaranteed.

Michael Tierney, the attorney for ConVal, points out that the attorney general must go to the New Hampshire Fiscal Committee and the Executive Council to make the hires.

The state budgets about $350,000 per fiscal year for the Attorney General’s Office to pay for outside services, but the office already has overspent that amount by more than $2.4 million.

In November, the Attorney General’s Office sought another $775,000 in additional funding for outside services, and the council and the committee knocked that down to $300,000.

Ruoff stated in his order that if the state brings on Warr and Munich, they might have to stay on the case even if the state funding to pay them does not come through.

“Once a trial date is set, withdrawal of counsel for any party is only by leave of the court,” Ruoff wrote. “If the state encounters funding difficulties after the trial date is set, out-of-state counsel runs the risk of having any withdrawal disallowed if such withdrawal prejudices the plaintiffs or otherwise hinders the administration of justice.”

The case is scheduled for trial next year in which Ruoff could determine the cost of an adequate education in New Hampshire.

Ruoff ruled in 2019 that the state is in violation of the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s Claremont decision from the 1990s, which found that all New Hampshire children have a constitutional right to an adequate education.

The funding of what counts as an adequate education has always been left up to the Legislature, the courts determined, and Ruoff’s original order did the same. However, after an appeal, the New Hampshire Supreme Court sent the case back to Ruoff to decide.

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