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N.H. activists look to a legal 'revolution'

Constitution fuels group's defense

CONCORD, N.H. -- The peace activists arrived at Senator Judd Gregg's office with cookies for the staff and planned to stay until the senator responded to their request for a meeting. At the end of the day, they left in handcuffs.

Now they plan to invoke the New Hampshire Constitution's right of revolution in their legal defense.

The court case against eight activists arrested in Gregg's Concord office in December has been building for almost a year.

Members of New Hampshire Peace Action have been trying to get the Republican senator to hold a public meeting to discuss exit strategies from Iraq. In addition to letters, petitions, and protests outside Gregg's office starting last April, two delegations have been arrested during the past nine months for refusing to leave the office at closing time.

Gregg has responded with a couple of letters, including one last month.

''As your arrests and protests have certainly made [your] unalterable commitment to your position clear, a public event as a further stage would seem to have no practical, substantive purpose," he wrote to Eileen Reardon, who was arrested last summer.

The activists beg to differ.

''People are being killed every day and the problem remains," said David Van Strien, a retired Unitarian minister from Peterborough who was among those arrested in December. ''He should be willing to discuss it with us and to listen to us. . . . Give and take -- that's what democracy is supposed to be."

Guy Chichester, a longtime activist who also was arrested, agrees. ''He's ducking his responsibility when he ducks meetings with his constituents," he said. Just sending letters is ''insufficient and unacceptable."

Gregg's chief of staff, Joel Maiolo, said in a statement that Gregg meets regularly with New Hampshire residents on a variety of issues. He said Gregg has been clear about his support for administration policy in Iraq and he understands the position of the protesters.

Similar conflicts between Republican senators and activists have happened around the country. In Maine, 19 people were arrested outside the office of Senator Olympia Snowe in Bangor while urging her to hold a town hall meeting on the war. They were arrested for obstructing a hallway.

Members of Peace Action Maine say they have staged eight office occupations involving members of Maine's congressional delegation but were arrested only once, in December. They didn't contest the charge and were sentenced to community service.

In New Hampshire, the activists arrested in June were convicted of trespassing and fined. But when those arrested in December go to court next month, they plan to rely on an unusual provision of New Hampshire's Constitution, the ''right of revolution."

''Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the whole community and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government. The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind," Article 10 reads.

''It's an incredible thing that it is in our constitution and it perfectly fits our condition," said Jamilla El Shaife, one of those arrested.

Lawyer Steve Cherry, who is not charging for his work, was just beginning his research.

''I don't expect to find a lot of case law, but I think it's highly significant that it's in the state Constitution," he said.

Richard Hesse, a retired professor at the Franklin Pierce Law Center, said the right of revolution was common when state constitutions were drafted in Colonial times, but most states have since dropped it.

''New Hampshire is one of the very few where it survived," he said.

Though the right is invoked occasionally, Hesse doubts it will win the day for the activists.

''The way the courts have interpreted it, as long as the ordinary avenues for redress of grievance remain, there's no right to overthrow the government," he said.

In the case of an unresponsive elected official, people could vote him out.

Chichester said he used the right of revolution successfully years ago when he sawed down a pole while protesting construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant. But that case went before a jury, not a district court judge.

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