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High court hits the road

Justices give students a view from the bench


CONCORD -- After watching the five justices on the state Supreme Court in action Thursday, more than 500 area high school students learned which justice was the court comedian, which one can't silence his cellphone in public and which one considered teacher astronaut Christa McAuliffe her best childhood friend.

They also learned a bit about how the court operates.

Chief Justice Linda Dalianis said justices each spend 40 to 60 hours a week working, devouring hundreds of pages of legal briefs and court opinions to prepare for upcoming appeals they normally hear on the other side of the Merrimack River.

"As for being in the courtroom, it's kind of like the iceberg that sunk the Titantic," she told high school students from about a half-dozen area schools. "There's only a little bit that people can see because most of it was under the water and that's true for us as well.

"Most of what we do doesn't take place in the courtroom," Dalianis said.

Giving a glimpse into the court's decision-making process, Associate Justice Robert Lynn said each justice studies the cases before oral arguments and Lynn said he sometimes forms an "inclination" of how he tentatively feels before hearing the case. But oral arguments from attorneys and later conferences with his colleagues sometimes sway him the other way.

"We challenge each other all the time," said Associate Justice Carol Ann Conboy.

The luck of the draw determines who will write a given opinion.

"Just because one of us writes the opinion does not mean that the four others don't have a large influence and question," Conboy said. "We go back and forth and we may do draft after draft to really make sure all of us are comfortable with whatever the assigned judge writes."

Devon Soule, a junior at Pembroke Academy, sketched with black pencil the five justices in their black robes for her civics and economic class.

"I think it was very inspiring and educational," Soule said of the 2-1/4-hour hour session.

Her classmate, Laura Bourgeois, a Pembroke Academy senior, sat next to Soule, taking notes.

"My teacher says I should be a lawyer, so that's why I came," Bourgeois said. "Whenever I have a debate, I try to prove my point."

With students in the audience, the justices heard oral arguments for two real cases, including one involving a driver who looked down to read a text message and crossed the center line, causing an accident that resulted in serious injury in Pembroke in 2010. After each case, the attorneys answered questions.

Travis Beeson, a junior at Concord High School, asked attorney David Rothstein whether the state will make laws stricter for cellphones and other devices. Rothstein said court decisions sometimes influence legislators. "That's how laws get changed" sometimes, said Rothstein, who represented the driver, Chad Belleville, who is currently in prison.

Asked what effect the texting appeal might have on fellow students, Concord High junior Bianca Lennon said: "I think people will be a lot more cautious, at least hopefully."

This marked the 15th "On the Road" session with the state's top court. The texting case was specifically scheduled for this event, said court Public Information Officer Carole Alfano.

Nick Zavorotny, a junior at Concord High, said he found the court cases interesting.

"Some of the arguments were different than I would expect," he said.

Asked what he took away from the event, Zavorotny said: "I'm not going to court."

For the record, Senior Associate Justice Gary Hicks is the "court comedian," Dalianis said. Lynn was the one whose cellphone rang during the question-and-answer session with students.

And inside the auditorium named for the teacher-turned-astronaut who died in the explosion aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Dalianis said McAuliffe "was my best childhood friend — an odd little piece of inside baseball."

mcousineau@unionleader.com

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