NH Supreme Court hears cases, takes questions at school



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AMHERST - Area high school students had the chance to do something Wednesday many lawyers only dream about: ask the state Supreme Court justices questions. The students, from 13 area schools, and the justices were participating in an event called "Supreme Court On the Road" at Souhegan High School, in which students and community members got to watch the five justices take oral arguments in two real cases. The event is designed to give students a close look at the appellate court and its work. This is the 10th such program the Supreme Court has held. "You students are getting an opportunity to do something every lawyer in the state would love to do," said the event's moderator, Merrimack District Court Judge Clifford R. Kinghorn Jr. "That's to ask the Supreme Court justices questions, rather than having them ask you questions." The event included an informal question-and-answer session, during which the students had an opportunity to learn about the justices, their careers and experiences as members of the state Supreme Court. Kinghorn instructed that students not ask about the cases at hand or any cases that could come before the court. However, students were able to ask the lawyers on both sides of each issue about their cases. The justices heard two cases during the event, and the decisions will be rendered at a later date. The first was about a man who attempted to pay a 50-cent toll in Rochester in 2006 with tokens, after the state decided it would no longer accept them. Later, the man, Graham Jensen, refused to pay a fine and instead spent three days in jail. Jensen is asking the court to reverse "an unjust criminal conviction." His lawyer, Josh Gordon, argued that the state unilaterally broke a "contract" when it discontinued the coins. In a phone interview after the event, Gordon said the implications of this case are unclear for other people who still hold tokens. The second case was about a student at Hanover High School who was convicted of being an accomplice in a scheme to steal a math exam. The defendant, Paul Formella, and two of his friends had agreed to act as "lookouts," but they felt uncomfortable with the task and left their posts as the other students were committing the crime. The legal question the justices are deciding is whether Formella's conviction should be overturned because he terminated his role in the crime. During the question-and-answer session, Milford High School student Molly Lai asked Justice Linda Dalianis what is was like to be a woman in a profession that's dominated by men - the four other justices are men. That's when Justice Gary Hicks chimed in. "It's a terrible burden," Hicks said, causing the auditorium to erupt in laughter. But Dalianis, of Nashua, said she felt considerable pressure in her first seven years as a superior court trial judge, because she worried any mistakes she made would prevent other women from advancing in the legal field. She was the only female superior court judge at the time. "When I first started, I was an oddity," Dalianis said. "That's no longer the case, I'm glad to say." Being the only woman on the New Hampshire Supreme Court doesn't bother her. "I don't have too much trouble with these guys," she said, referring to the other justices. Justice Richard Galway, of Bedford, said when he graduated from law school in 1970 there were only 10 women in his graduating class. Now graduating classes are divided equally between men and women. Hollis/Brookline High School student Corey Phillips asked if justices think of questions to ask lawyers ahead of time or if they are spontaneous. Supreme Court justices are allowed to ask questions during a lawyer's opening arguments. The justices replied that it's a mixture of both. Justice James Duggan, of Amherst, said he uses a lot of sticky notes to remember what to ask. Allison Murphy, of Conval High School in Peterborough, asked if they always sit in the same order. The justices replied that they do. They also said they even have their own parking spots numbered one through five. The justices are numbered according to how long they have been on the bench. When he introduced himself, Hicks got some laughs when he told the audience while he is ranked fifth on the bench, he is "No. 1 in their (the audience's) hearts." Another student asked how one becomes a Supreme Court justice. Chief Justice John Broderick Jr. said there are several ways to become a justice. For example, one could come from private law practice, as Broderick had, or one could have served on a lower court. The other justices added that a commission recommends a nominee to the governor. Eric Lizotte, of Nashua Christian Academy, asked what was the most absurd case they had ever heard. But Duggan said they couldn't answer that question. "I can't tell you which cases are absurd, because to the litigants, they are important," Duggan said. "If they are fighting over silverware in a divorce case, these people really want to fight and we have to decide it." Responding to Lizotte's question, Dalianis said she once heard a case in superior court, where a woman was upset that her neighbor's sprinkler got the inside of her car wet. Dalianis said it never occurred to the car's owner to roll up the car windows. Several students asked if the justices keep their emotions and opinions out of the cases and if yes, how they do it. All the justices said it's their duty to the litigants to be impartial. The questions justices ask the lawyers are constructed in a way that doesn't give away their positions, the justices said. Also the justices don't discuss the cases among themselves before oral arguments to preserve independent thought. Broderick said that although some cases, such as ones involving child custody, can be heartbreaking, the justices have an obligation to follow the law. "That doesn't mean we don't feel things," Broderick said. After the event, Souhegan sophomore Jake Moskowitz, who serves as president of the school's video production club, said he was interested in the cases because they were relevant to average people. "They weren't elitist or corporate issues, they were issues we deal with every day like tolls and honesty," Moskowitz said. Souhegan's video production class filmed the event, held in the auditorium, and it will be shown on Amherst cable channel 21 in the near future. The only problem during the event was that a fire alarm went off as Kinghorn was making his opening remarks. Students were evacuated from the building for about five to 10 minutes. Souhegan Principal Scott Prescott said someone had pulled the alarm. Police Lt. Mark Reams said police are investigating the incident. In addition to Souhegan, the other schools participating in the program were: Nashua High Schools North and South; Conval High School; Alvirne High School; Nashua Christian High School; Bishop Guertin High School; Bedford High School; Hollis/Brookline High School; Milford High School; Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School; Merrimack High School; and the Shaker Road School in Concord. In a phone interview after the event, Gordon said the implications of this case are unclear for other people who still hold tokens. The second case was about a student at Hanover High School who was convicted of being an accomplice in a scheme to steal a math exam. The defendant, Paul Formella, and two of his friends had agreed to act as "lookouts," but they felt uncomfortable with the task and left their posts as the other students were committing the crime. The legal question the justices are deciding is whether Formella's conviction should be overturned because he terminated his role in the crime. During the question-and-answer session, Milford High School student Molly Lai asked Justice Linda Dalianis what is was like to be a woman in a profession that's dominated by men - the four other justices are men. That's when Justice Gary Hicks chimed in. "It's a terrible burden," Hicks said, causing the auditorium to erupt in laughter. But Dalianis, of Nashua, said she felt considerable pressure in her first seven years as a superior court trial judge, because she worried any mistakes she made would prevent other women from advancing in the legal field. She was the only female superior court judge at the time. "When I first started, I was an oddity," Dalianis said. "That's no longer the case, I'm glad to say." Being the only woman on the New Hampshire Supreme Court doesn't bother her. "I don't have too much trouble with these guys," she said, referring to the other justices. Justice Richard Galway, of Bedford, said when he graduated from law school in 1970 there were only 10 women in his graduating class. Now graduating classes are divided equally between men and women. Hollis/Brookline High School student Corey Phillips asked if justices think of questions to ask lawyers ahead of time or if they are spontaneous. Supreme Court justices are allowed to ask questions during a lawyer's opening arguments. The justices replied that it's a mixture of both. Justice James Duggan, of Amherst, said he uses a lot of sticky notes to remember what to ask. Allison Murphy, of Conval High School in Peterborough, asked if they always sit in the same order. The justices replied that they do. They also said they even have their own parking spots numbered one through five. The justices are numbered according to how long they have been on the bench. When he introduced himself, Hicks got some laughs when he told the audience while he is ranked fifth on the bench, he is "No. 1 in their (the audience's) hearts." Another student asked how one becomes a Supreme Court justice. Chief Justice John Broderick Jr. said there are several ways to become a justice. For example, one could come from private law practice, as Broderick had, or one could have served on a lower court. The other justices added that a commission recommends a nominee to the governor. Eric Lizotte, of Nashua Christian Academy, asked what was the most absurd case they had ever heard. But Duggan said they couldn't answer that question. "I can't tell you which cases are absurd, because to the litigants, they are important," Duggan said. "If they are fighting over silverware in a divorce case, these people really want to fight and we have to decide it." Responding to Lizotte's question, Dalianis said she once heard a case in superior court, where a woman was upset that her neighbor's sprinkler got the inside of her car wet. Dalianis said it never occurred to the car's owner to roll up the car windows. Several students asked if the justices keep their emotions and opinions out of the cases and if yes, how they do it. All the justices said it's their duty to the litigants to be impartial. The questions justices ask the lawyers are constructed in a way that doesn't give away their positions, the justices said. Also the justices don't discuss the cases among themselves before oral arguments to preserve independent thought. Broderick said that although some cases, such as ones involving child custody, can be heartbreaking, the justices have an obligation to follow the law. "That doesn't mean we don't feel things," Broderick said. After the event, Souhegan sophomore Jake Moskowitz, who serves as president of the school's video production club, said he was interested in the cases because they were relevant to average people. "They weren't elitist or corporate issues, they were issues we deal with every day like tolls and honesty," Moskowitz said. Souhegan's video production class filmed the event, held in the auditorium, and it will be shown on Amherst cable channel 21 in the near future. The only problem during the event was that a fire alarm went off as Kinghorn was making his opening remarks. Students were evacuated from the building for about five to 10 minutes. Souhegan Principal Scott Prescott said someone had pulled the alarm. Police Lt. Mark Reams said police are investigating the incident. In addition to Souhegan, the other schools participating in the program were: Nashua High Schools North and South; Conval High School; Alvirne High School; Nashua Christian High School; Bishop Guertin High School; Bedford High School; Hollis/Brookline High School; Milford High School; Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School; Merrimack High School; and the Shaker Road School in Concord.

 

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