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High school students get up close and personal with state Supreme Court

The state’s five Supreme Court justices started yesterday by listening to oral arguments on two cases and asking pointed questions, just as they would on a typical day. But the tables soon turned when the justices themselves became the subjects of questions, this time from area high school students gathered at Concord High School.

The justices were at the school as part of an annual “On the Road” event where students have a chance to witness the judicial branch in action. Questions touched on everything from what it takes to become one of the state’s top judges to whether the two female justices ever experienced sexism during their careers.

The justices couldn’t answer questions on the specific cases, but the attorneys for both cases held short question-and-answer sessions after their arguments. Students from Concord, Bow,

Hopkinton, Merrimack Valley, Pembroke Academy, John Stark and Laconia high schools as well as some home-schooled students attended the event.

“I feel like the experience of watching helps teach a lot,” said Morgan Gammel, a Merrimack Valley student who is interested in pursuing a law career.

Gammel asked the justices whether their own personal ideals ever conflict with the decisions they must make on the bench.

“Judges are bound by oath to be impartial, which in a certain sense means that our personal ideals don’t matter,” said Chief Justice Linda Dalianis.

Another student, Susan Griffith of Concord, asked Dalianis and Justice Carol Conboy whether they ever encountered sexism in their careers that made it harder for them to advance.

Conboy said that when she was a lawyer earlier in her career, she felt people assumed that male lawyers were competent until proven incompetent, whereas female lawyers were treated in the opposite way. Dalianis added that as more women come into top positions in the courtroom, sexism continues to fade.

In response to a question about whether the justices have their minds made up before oral arguments, Justice Robert Lynn said his views sometimes change during oral arguments and in conferences with the other justices. All of the justices do their research and reading on the case beforehand, so some of them may have early inclinations on how they might rule, but that doesn’t mean their opinions can’t be swayed.

“It’s not at all unusual based upon the oral argument for me to have a different view,” Lynn said.

Several students had questions about what it takes to become a judge. Anna Robert, a Concord senior, asked whether it really matters where you go to law school. Justice Gary Hicks said that law school rankings can play a major role in getting a job, as students in the top tier of the best schools can get a job anywhere they want. But Conboy added that once you have the job, it’s more about your work ethic and achievements rather than where you went to school.

Before the justices began their question-and-answer session, they heard appeals on two cases: State of New Hampshire v. Joshua Texeira and State of New Hampshire v. Chad Belleville . In the former case, Joshua Texeira was convicted on two counts of first-degree assault for beating a man with a baton outside a bar in 2011. The appeal centered on whether the prosecution was fairly allowed to use a statement from Texeira’s ex-wife, who said he owned a billy club four years before the assault. The defense believed her statement should not have been introduced as evidence and may have unfairly influenced the jury.

In the latter case, Chad Belleville crashed into two cars in December 2010 in Pittsfield while looking at a text message on his phone. He did not kill anyone, but at least one passenger suffered serious injuries. Belleville was convicted of one count of vehicular assault and one count of second-degree assault. The appeal is an attempt to have the court overturn the ruling that Belleville acted recklessly, meaning he knowingly engaged in behavior that was dangerous.

Students had a handful of questions about the second case, as it related to a topic (texting while driving) that is familiar to many of them. A female student from John Stark said she didn’t think texting while driving was illegal in New Hampshire. David Rothstein, the defense attorney, said state law allows people to look at their phones while driving but not to engage in the act of sending text messages.

Michael Roberge, a Concord student, related the arguments to the recent crash in Hampton where a driver hit and killed two bicyclists. Prosecutor Diana Fenton said that, like in the Belleville case, the state will have to determine whether the driver’s actions leading up to the crash were criminally negligent or reckless.

Allie Krause, a senior from Bow, said the presentation was less formal than she imagined it would be. She also found the text message case especially interesting because it touches on a topic that high school students know.

“I thought it was cool to relate to it, especially the second case,” she said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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