CONCORD — The New Hampshire Supreme Court returned to its original Statehouse home Tuesday, holding a session that touched on the sweep of history and the specificity of a single word.
The court held oral arguments in the newly-renovated Senate chamber as part the building's bicentennial celebration. When the Statehouse opened in 1819, the court shared the chamber with the Senate, and the scales of justice still figure prominently in the room's decor.
"We're just delighted to have been able to participate," Chief Justice Robert Lynn said in an interview. "If you stop and think that this Legislature has been meeting here for 200 years, it's really terrific."
The case was a property tax dispute involving Louis Nordle, a disabled veteran who purchased a summer camp on Lake Winnisquam in Belmont in 1998 and replaced it with a year-round home in 2007. After his disabilities worsened, he used a Veterans Administration grant to renovate the home to accommodate his wheelchair in 2015 and later applied for a tax exemption. The town said no, but a state board reversed that decision, prompting the town to appeal to the high court.
At issue was a single word in the state law allowing tax exemptions for certain disabled veterans who own specially adapted homes "acquired" with the assistance of the Veterans Administration. The town's attorney argued Nordle acquired the home in 1998 without VA help, and that the law does not allow an exemption for those who adapt their homes later. Nordle's attorney argued that "acquire" has a broader meaning.
"An employer acquires an employee, a reader acquires book from library," said attorney Joshua Gordon.
He argued Nordle didn't "acquire" a specially adapted home until he made the 2015 renovations with help from the VA. When Lynn asked him whether lawmakers could have used words like "renovations" if they wanted to cover such scenarios, Gordon responded with question of his own.
"If you were a legislator and you meant just purchase, wouldn't you just say purchase?" he said.
Lynn later called the case a good example of one of the court's key responsibilities.
"It's our job to decide how the law applies to circumstances that may not have been specifically contemplated by the Legislature when they passed the statute," he said. "That's what we do, and it's our job to do that fairly and impartially and to give everybody an opportunity for a fair hearing and hopefully come to a just decision."
For state Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, the event was a reminder of the historic association between the judicial branch, the legislative branch and the public.
"Courts must in a democracy remain connected to the realities and experiences of New Hampshire society today," he said.