Bar News - November 18, 2015
‘On the Road’ with the NH Supreme Court
By: Carol Robidoux
Students at Bedford High School got to see the state’s Supreme Court in action during a recent On the Road 2015 series stop, which recreated a courtroom setting inside the school auditorium.
More than an exercise in mobile justice, students got to ask the tough questions, like how much money Supreme Court justices make, (around $150,000) and what’s up with the black robes (nobody knew for sure).
Two appeals were heard during the Oct. 14 two-part session, which lasted about three hours – the first related to how evidence was presented in a drug possession trial, and the second looked at a theft from a daycare center and the appeal of the original decision, based on whether instructions given to the jury were clear enough.
Through it all, students got a first-hand look at how the state’s high court deliberates, and had an opportunity to ask questions of the presenting attorneys and the five sitting Supreme Court justices: Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis; Senior Associate Justice Gary Hicks; Associate Justice Carol Ann Conboy; Associate Justice Robert Lynn; and Associate Justice James Bassett.
In the first case, the appeal was based on two questions brought before the court that revolved around the way evidence was presented during the original trial:
- Did the state present enough evidence for the jury to decide that the defendant was guilty of possession of marijuana, even though the state did not show the jury the actual marijuana it said he possessed?
- And did the trial judge make a mistake by allowing a lab analyst to testify about the marijuana he tested without showing the actual marijuana the state said the defendant possessed to the jury?
Oral arguments were presented by Senior Assistant Appellate Defender Thomas Barnard, and Attorney Jason A. Casey, who made the case for the state.
In the second case, the question before the Supreme Court was determining whether the jury was properly instructed on how to assess the conflicting witness testimony, which was based on circumstantial evidence. Oral arguments in that case were presented by Deputy Chief Appellate Defender Stephanie Hausman, and Assistant Attorney General Patrick Queenan, arguing for the state.
Both cases were taken under advisement and no rulings were rendered. Rather, the instructional value of the process took center stage, providing unfettered access for students to see and hear the judicial process unfold, and the legal dialogue that takes place between attorneys and judges.
Students also learned that the New Hampshire Supreme Court reviews 800-1,000 cases annually, and of those, the rulings are unanimous about 95 percent of the time.
They also learned that four out of five Supreme Court justices are “dog people” (only Justice Conboy admitted to being a “cat lady”) and that there is a hierarchy of sorts: Although each judge has an equal vote, the newest judge, currently Judge Bassett, aka “No. 5,” is charged with supplemental tasks, such as answering the chamber door when someone knocks, keeping notes, and putting another log on the fire whenever the flame in the judicial fireplace needs tending.
Hausman was asked if she’s experienced gender discrimination as a female attorney, to which she diplomatically answered that things continue to evolve within the legal system, which here in New Hampshire includes many female judges. And continuing that thread, Queenan pointed out that New Hampshire is recognized for consistently nominating female leaders – from the governor and state senate, to high-ranking judicial posts, as well as city and law enforcement positions.
Also stressed was the importance of doing their homework before hearing any case.
“Unlike other branches of government, when we make a decision we have to explain it, and it’s subject to public scrutiny,” said Dalianis. “That requires we known the nuances of the case, and that we do our homework.”
The Supreme Court began its “On the Road” series in 2002, with Bedford being the seventeenth location. It is the only occasion when the court convenes outside the Supreme Court building in Concord.