By Laura Kiernan

Last spring, Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald and Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi met with leaders of the NH Bar Foundation and the NH Bar Association to discuss their concern about public misconceptions of the role of an independent judiciary. Across the country, criticism of judges was rising in intensity and respect for the rule of law was declining. What could be done to build public trust in our courts and in our system of justice?
The meeting participants concluded that confidence increases when judges step out of the courthouse and into their communities to talk about their work and discuss the history and importance of our system of laws.
“There is no substitute for reaching out to people directly, explaining what we do and the vital importance of the rule of law, as well as listening to their concerns,” Chief Justice MacDonald said recently about the need for public engagement.

With that goal in mind, New Hampshire judges and lawyers will participate in National Judicial Outreach Week (NJOW) from March 1 to March 10, a project initiated by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 2017 to enhance public understanding of the rule of law and a judges’ obligation to be fair and impartial without concern for public opinion or partisan politics. There are no better spokespeople for the judiciary than the judges themselves, the ABA said.
“I think it is important for the public to see that judges are doing a job that is incredibly difficult and essential,” said UNH law school professor emeritus John Garvey, a Bar Foundation board member and co-chair of the Judicial Outreach Week Steering Committee for New Hampshire. “I don’t think people always realize that judges are human and have a tremendous responsibility to equally and fairly apply the rules that we have agreed to as a society.”

According to the ABA, reaching out—especially to students and young people— “is the surest way for the public to see the dedication and integrity of American judges.” Judges, active and retired, are encouraged to be involved “in discussions about liberty, the rule of law, and the preservation of fair and impartial courts.”
During NJOW, teams of judges and lawyers are scheduled to hold outreach sessions at five locations, including Concord and Nashua. Sessions are also scheduled with students at Saint Anselm College in Manchester and University of New Hampshire in Durham and with senior leadership from Catholic Medical Center in Manchester.

Presentations will be tailored to each audience from the structure of the court system to a discussion of the meaning of the rule of law. Materials prepared for the local presentations begin with a fundamental question, “Why do we care about the law?” and then review court history, the role of the three branches of government, the sources of our laws, and the principle that laws must be applied fairly and impartially and not be influenced by “popular, partisan, and special interests.”
Phrases heard so often in the media and public discourse, but often misunderstood or not understood at all, are addressed including “due process” and the bedrock principle of democracy that no one is above the law.
Chief Justice MacDonald and attorney Garvey are scheduled to meet with 200 junior and senior high school students at Jaffrey Middle School and Conant High School.
“Anything that helps with outreach so that everyday citizens can better understand the importance of our judiciary and build respect for the difficulty of the job and the importance of  doing it well…to me that’s worth the time,” Garvey said.
Garvey and retired Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara are co-chairing the Outreach Week Committee. Members include Justice Hantz Marconi, Superior Court Judges Jacalyn Colburn and John Kissinger, Circuit Court Judge Ellen Christo, NHBA and Bar Foundation Executive Director George Moore, Attorneys Caroline Leonard and Josh Wyatt, and Judicial Branch General Counsel Mary Ann Dempsey. The project is a partnership between the Judicial Branch and the NH Bar Foundation, with staff support from the NHBA.
Public trust in all governmental institutions–including the courts–continues to slide, according to State of the State Courts, an annual survey of 1,000 registered voters. conducted in October 2022 for the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). Moreover, the results showed that Americans are “losing faith in the courts ability to deliver equal justice for all.”

Programs such as NJOW, along with civic education and diversity and inclusion projects that promote interaction with the judiciary are geared towards strengthening public trust and confidence in the courts.

“Events in the broader political environment and key Supreme Court decisions have combined to dramatically impact the way many Americans view the judicial system at all levels,” The NCSC said. “Every year, this survey serves as a reminder that most Americans are not focused on the court system in their daily lives and have only the most rudimentary understanding of how these systems work.”

With confidence in courts and other public institutions in decline, Chief Justice MacDonald, who served on the NCSC survey advisory committee, said it is particularly important for judges and lawyers to meet the people we serve where they live, work, and study.

“I thank the committee members for their efforts, and I hope this will be just the beginning of our judicial outreach effort,” the Chief Justice MacDonald said.

New Hampshire’s participation in NJOW is expected to be an annual event.

Laura Kiernan is the Interim Communications Manager for the New Hampshire Judicial Branch. She previously served as the Director of Communications and established the court’s public information office. She worked for many years in print and broadcast media, including The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. She can be reached at (603) 271-2646 or at