Bar News - August 15, 2008
Supreme Court Society Sets Ambitious Agenda
By: Dan Wise
US Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter is pictured with NH Supreme Court Society President Mary Susan Leahy at NH Supreme Court room dedication. Souter urges more education on the rule of law and the role of the courts in US society.
It began as an effort to celebrate one of the greatest judges in the history of the New Hampshire judiciary – Chief Justice Frank Rowe Kenison. The campaign to raise funds for his portrait in 2005 drew an enthusiastic response, principally from the NH legal community, and more money was raised than was needed.
NH Supreme Court Chief Justice John T. Broderick, who had asked a small group of NH attorneys, including Mary Susan Leahy, to spearhead the portrait effort, suggested that the remainder of funds be used as seed money for an organization that could play an ongoing role in celebrating the accomplishments and outstanding figures of the state’s highest court as well as promoting the importance of an effective and independent judiciary.
The group, which also includes Loretta Kenison, the widow of Chief Justice Kenison as honorary co-chair, has since become incorporated as the The NH Supreme Court Society, an independent organization governed by a 25-member board of trustees. Originally, the group was to be called the NH Supreme Court Historical (our emphasis) Society, but true to its independent status, the society has taken a slightly different approach toward fulfilling its original mission than what Chief Justice Broderick conceived.
"I had been a member of the US Supreme Court Historical Society," said Leahy, who has become NH Supreme Court Society president due to her singular focus on its launch. "It was backward-looking, it was boring." Inspired by a conversation with US Supreme Court Associate Justice David H. Souter—whose speech highlighted the Kenison portrait unveiling—Leahy encouraged the group to shift the emphasis of the new society from the past to include the present and the future: "We want the Society to be a living organization, not just a retrospective looking organization. We want to do projects that touch people," Leahy said.
The original group of trustees, which included Susan Leidy, the executive director of the Currier Gallery of Art; Mary McGowan, an art gallery owner; retired NH Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph P. Nadeau, and Dr. Sylvio Dupuis, an educator and nonprofit executive, also observed that it was unlikely that the society would have the finances and technical expertise to gather and properly maintain historical artifacts.
Leahy, in the course of organizing the group, spoke with Justice Souter who she said encouraged her to point the new society toward projects that would speak to people about the importance of the rule of law and the role of our courts in society.
Over the last couple of years, the society has begun to gain momentum. Society members, led by retired Associate Justice Joseph P. Nadeau helped organize events to celebrate the NH visit in Nov. 2006 of Hon. Mahmat Al-Mahmoud, Chief Justice of the Iraq Supreme Court. Events have been held at the Supreme Court building to dedicate various rooms in the State Law Library in the name of the late Chief Justice William Grimes and Associate Justice William Batchelder. In May, the halls of the courthouse and library were adorned with recently discovered sketches of NH Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Peaslee. The drawings, doodles, really, depict the people who appeared before him in court while he was riding circuit on the trial bench at the turn of the century, and include wry, cryptic captions, drawn on the back of various papers that the judge would have had before him on the bench.
Also this spring, NHBA President Eleanor Dahar announced that the Bar Association, in lieu of making token gifts to retiring members of the judiciary, would instead make a contribution of $100 to the Society for each retiring judge.
And on July 9, the Society sponsored the dedication of the Supreme Court justices’ conference room in the name of David Hackett Souter. At the event, many speakers extolled Souter’s standing as a judge and legal thinker, and shared humorous accounts of the reclusive judge’s personality. Souter spoke of his feeling for New Hampshire and for the profound feelings he had for the court where he served before his ascendancy to the federal bench.
There are other court-connected projects that the Society is involved with—the semi-annual King Lecture in October (see future issues of Bar News for more), plans for traveling exhibits about the Court, conducting courthouse tours, gathering oral histories-- but the real energy of the Society is now being directed to its forward- and future-looking projects.
Inspired by accounts of the Iraqi judge’s courage to do his duty as a judge in a war-torn country, a Concord elementary school teacher approached the Society to enlist its support in developing a civics curriculum that would introduce students to the concept of the rule of law and its essential role in civilized society.
Susan Robichaud, of the Beaver Meadow School in Concord, has developed a series of activities for students in the fourth grade, when the state curriculum standards require the teaching of civics. Robichaud has received advice and guidance from several Society members, and is working closely with attorney David Wolowitz, a Society trustee who collaborated with Robichaud years ago on an ABA-award-winning project that paired students in her classroom with lawyers from Wolowitz’s firm for year-long e-mail mentoring relationships.
The curriculum features opening and closing activities that represent students’ "admission" and "graduation" from the "NH Supreme Court Law School" and a number of modules that introduce students to the need for rules in society, how trials work, and other aspects of how the judicial branch functions in our government. In the trial portion, students participate as jurors, attorneys, and even as reporters who report on the verdict. Wolowitz says an important aspect of the curriculum is its emphasis on parental involvement – some assignments require students to teach what they have learned about the justice system to their parents, and the "graduation" activity is structured for parents to attend.
In the coming year, portions of the curriculum – developed last year by Robichaud who was awarded a partial-year sabbatical by the Concord School District – will be piloted in Robichaud’s and other teachers’ classrooms. Leahy hopes that eventually the Society can help find funding to put the curriculum on DVDs and printed materials to spread it widely across the state.
Leahy is also networking with other educational projects, in and out of the state, with the goal of improving civics education in the state – a mandated area of study that is woefully lacking in learning tools for teachers and students.
"Our goal is to bring about an improvement in civic education, by integrating various ongoing efforts in this area, to incorporate all levels of students in NH schools," Leahy says. To further that goal, the Society is convening a small group of educators, court officials, Society supporters, and the NH Bar—a longtime provider of law related education programming in the schools—to brainstorm ways to work together on civics education initiatives.
Leahy says that this focus on education is not a divergence from the original mission of recognizing the accomplishments and role of the NH Supreme Court, but reflects a broader vision of how to fulfill it. "Civics is about living with rules, living with people in society. Educating people about the rule of law is essential," she said.
To date, the Society has enrolled 90 members, and anyone is encouraged to join. The Society offers three annual membership levels: $50 for young lawyers/students/ or employees of nonprofits; $100 for a regular membership; $200 for patron membership; and $1,500 for a lifetime membership. Contact Society Membership Chair Jay Surdukowski at email@example.com or at 9 Capitol Street, Concord, 03301.