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Bar News - February 15, 2017

Opinion: TEDx Challenge Sheds Light on Judicial Duty to Speak Out

Photo by Michael Sterling

Last spring, when I was asked to deliver a TEDx talk about Drug Court – how it works and why it makes more sense than sending offenders suffering from addiction to jail or prison – it presented an awesome challenge. To succeed, I would have to explain the science behind a significant criminal justice reform effort and demystify addiction, all in less than 18 minutes. A daunting task, but as I thought about it, not totally unlike the first time I gave general instructions to 100 potential jurors, or talked to civic clubs about drug court.

Early in my judicial career, I did not expect that public speaking would figure in my job description. On the contrary, I believed I would remain in the background quietly leveling the playing field, while talented lawyers would take center stage to advocate for their clients. The TEDx talk, however, would require me to be center stage in front of 200 people, lights blazing, live-streaming, knowing that what I was about to say may be archived forever on YouTube.

Chief Justice Nadeau’s Piscataqua River TEDx Talk

From this experience, I learned some techniques to make preparing a speech a little easier – put technical and legal concepts into more common language, don’t read from the PowerPoint presentation, and use personal stories to make your broader point.

But I also learned a lot more than that.

I learned through the TEDx experience that my role as a judge can reach beyond the courtroom into the arena of public discourse, and that there are occasions when I can and should enter that arena to promote important public policy ideas. Judges are uniquely positioned to observe the practical effects of the law on the lives of the citizens who appear before us. As a result, we have the opportunity to promote changes that can improve lives in profound ways.

But it is not difficult to imagine why judges have been historically reluctant to become more active in promoting criminal justice initiatives; we have been inclined to be circumspect about our public roles, and to limit our voices to the confines of the legal process as it unfolds in the courtroom. A judge’s traditional role is to interpret the law, assess the evidence, control the conduct of trials and hearings, and render impartial decisions based on facts and law. The judge’s role as a neutral arbiter, however, should not be a barrier to speaking out, in general terms, when the judge believes the system can be improved to better serve the people who come before the courts. In the end, our job is to do justice.

After presiding over criminal cases for more than 15 years and seeing some of the same offenders who are battling drug addiction cycle through the courtroom with increasing jail and prison sanctions, but without improvement in their conditions, I knew something had to change. And I knew that action beyond the courtroom was justified.

Drug Courts are an empirically proven strategy to reduce crime, save money and return offenders to the community as contributing members. But garnering broad community acceptance of Drug Court, instead of prison, as an effective criminal justice response, can be challenging. The traditional views of crime and punishment have been deeply engrained in society. By stepping out of the courtroom and bringing passion and common understanding to citizens, judges can humanize the law and dispel common myths about the sentencing process. That is what motivated me to accept the TEDx invitation.

I spent many years engaging judges, attorneys, probation officers and law enforcement officials in discussions about the science of Drug Courts. I attended national trainings where I learned from experts about the effects of addiction on the human brain. Much of the information seemed counterintuitive. For example, studies show that when those of us in the criminal justice system motivate offenders suffering from addiction with positive reinforcement instead of harsh sentences, outcomes improve. When we combine treatment, intensive supervision and accountability, recidivism decreases. And when we act with compassion and empathy, offenders respond. Surely it is important to bring that view to a broader audience.

The TEDx experience gave me the opportunity to connect with the community and to gauge the public response. I learned that people from all walks of life are interested in the human condition. They want to know what works and what doesn’t. They are willing to test themselves and their firmly held beliefs. They are connected by a common desire to improve the lives of fellow citizens.

As lawyers and judges, we can bring the public a more informed understanding about the judicial experience. So what can you do? Stay connected to the community outside your offices, help create an informed citizenry, find ways to help others to enjoy the rights and privileges that bind us in a common cause. If you have the chance to engage with new groups of people, by delivering a TEDx talk for example, or by working on a cause about which you feel passionate, just do it. Take up the challenge.

Tina Nadeau is the chief justice of the NH Superior Court. She was appointed as an associate justice in 1996 and as chief justice in 2011.

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