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Bar News - August 23, 2013

Court's Corner: Toward a More Open Court


The Reviews are In: Courts and Media Committee a Success

Laura Kiernan, who is retiring after 12 years as director of public information for the NH Judicial Branch, spearheaded the formation of the NH Committee on the Judiciary and the Media and has had a key role in many of the court’s public outreach efforts.
When you hear the word “committee” you probably think of an entity that meets too often and accomplishes too little. Now take a minute and picture a group made up of judges, lawyers, and reporters. What’s that likely to produce?

How about clarity and greater consistency in policies on media access to court proceedings and courthouses? How about the creation of a forum where issues of mutual concern are discussed in a congenial atmosphere? A group that produces greater understanding and practical solutions?

That’s been the quiet success of the New Hampshire Committee on the Judiciary and the Media, which has been meeting three times a year for 11 years. The committee has benefitted from the top-down support of the Supreme Court, and the rest of the judiciary as well. The Supreme Court has always been represented, with a member of the Court serving as co-chair, starting with (now retired) Senior Associate Justice Joseph Nadeau and then Justice James Duggan (who served on the committee for six years until his retirement.

Justice Robert Lynn, who regularly attended CJM meetings when he was Chief Justice of the Superior Court, now chairs the committee. Justice James Bassett, who served many years on the committee as an attorney, now regularly attends the meetings. Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau, Superior Court Judge Marguerite Wageling and Deputy Circuit Court Administrative Judge David King are members of the committee, along with clerks from the superior and circuit courts and representatives from court security.

Members of the press, notorious for short attention spans, impatience with formal structure, and subject to the never-ending risk of being called away by big stories, have faithfully attended every meeting. Attorneys William Chapman and Gregory Sullivan, who represent major news media outlets, have also been regular attendees to the group.

But the glue that has held this group together and made it successful has been Laura Kiernan, director of public information for the NH Judicial Branch since January 2001. Kiernan is leaving her position at the end of August (she prefers not to use the verb “retire”).

James Kimble, a Union Leader correspondent who has been regularly covering courts in Rockingham County for the past 10 years, co-chairs the committee, representing the NH Press Association. He said the committee’s work and Kiernan’s role in communicating these policies throughout the system have made a significant difference, improving the ability of reporters to cover the courts accurately and minimizing the friction that can develop in high-profile cases.

Last year, the committee developed a voluntary, annual registration process to streamline requests to use video and still cameras or audio equipment to record court proceedings. This process built on the committee’s work to put into place policies that allowed for consistent application of the state’s case law that presumes access to court proceedings by the news media.

Chapman, of the Orr & Reno law firm, has represented the Concord Monitor and other newspapers for many years. “New Hampshire has always had good law on allowing access to the courts, but Laura and this committee have developed the framework and made it work on a practical level.”

Andy Hershberger, a longtime crime and courts reporter for WMUR-TV said the committee provided a unique opportunity to hash out media access issues without deadline pressures and the harsh glare of any particular high-profile case.

“There’s always an invisible wall between us in the media and the judges,” he said. “With the committee, we are actually able to remove that wall and talk about our needs. I think both sides have come to an understanding of what each is trying to do. I think the judges were pleasantly surprised at what we wanted and could agree to.”

In addition to its regular meetings that involve the airing of issues and work on policies, the committee, with Kiernan’s guidance, has sponsored three half-day “Law School for Journalists” seminars that featured panels on media law basics, access issue discussions with judges and clerks, and reporters. Discussions ranged from covering appellate decisions to ideas about how to develop court-related stories that go beyond daily news reporting.

During her tenure, Kiernan has also overseen the development of the court’s website to serve the public and the press. Kimble cites the addition of the weekly dockets from each of the superior courts as an extremely helpful addition.

Justice Duggan said Kiernan, who came to the court system after a successful reporting career that included stops at the Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and NH Public Radio, has always been an important resource for judges in understanding how the media operates. Duggan cited her role in developing public outreach programs, such as the Constitution Day student essay contest, as evidence of her impact. She also had a hand in organizing the annual Supreme Court On the Road sessions, which brought oral arguments to high schools around the state, coupled with in-class discussions before the sessions with volunteer lawyers, and Q&A sessions with the lawyers arguing cases afterwards.

“She has played a big role in encouraging transparency for the judicial process,” Duggan said. “And when people know more about the courts, they appreciate it and respect it more.”

“All of us here — judges, administrators and staff — have worked very hard to make the state court system more transparent, more open and accessible to the public,” said Kiernan. “I am very proud of the role I played in that team effort.”

Kiernan and her husband, attorney Peter Beeson, who is retiring from the Devine Millimet firm, plan to travel and get away from New Hampshire during the winter and will be considering some new projects.

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