Next step for N.H.: restore public faith in state courts

The state's Supreme Court chief justice was acquitted at his impeachment trial. Still, calls for reform mount.

Now that New Hampshire Supreme Court's chief justice has avoided impeachment, the difficult task of rebuilding public trust in the court system begins.

In the Granite State, where the slow-moving, three-week Senate trial of David Brock exposed questionable practices among the judiciary, the damage is evident.

But many states - with or without scandal - are being forced to find ways to make judge's jobs more understandable and less secretive. Courts, after all, are becoming increasingly important in people's everyday lives as the number of lawsuits increases, and courts take a more active role in determining the legitimacy of social service and public programs.

New Hampshire has already made some reforms in judicial selection to open up the process, and courts in other states have actually done traveling tours to show more citizens how they work. More work remains, though, and many experts are calling for continued reforms.

"In the last 20 years, there's been a revolution in how courts relate to the public," says Seth Andersen, director of the Hunter Center for Judicial Selection at the American Judicature Society in Chicago. "And it's important for judges to lead the way in understanding and confidence."

The case in New Hampshire involved accusations that Chief Justice Brock inappropriately intervened in two cases, allowed fellow justices to comment on cases even after they admitted to conflicts of interest, and lied. He was acquitted by the state Senate Tuesday.

Still, some state lawmakers say they were shocked by what came out during the trial. Indeed, surveys have shown that the public, too, has a much better understanding of the executive and legislative branches than of the judicial.

"And unfortunately all too often judges make the news only when there is scandal on the bench," Mr. Andersen says.

The secrecy surrounding the court system most likely grew out of the fact that judges are bound by law in what they can say about cases. That has led to overall reservedness and uncertainty about speaking in public.

But things weren't always this way. Around the turn of the century, regional courts traveled around the area to perform business. That's how circuit courts got their name.

It was a big social event, "a big fair time," when the courts came to town, says Luke Bierman, director of the American Bar Association's Justice Center in Chicago.

That's beginning to happen again to a certain extent. Some courts have begun hearing cases at law schools and other public settings, they've worked to improve relationships with executives and lawmakers, and have encouraged public participation in judicial selection.

New Hampshire needs to take many of these steps, experts say. Richard Hesse, a law professor at the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H., who watched the trial closely, says progress must be made.

"This is not the same small court David Brock inherited 30 years ago. [The justices] must now review cases in a more transparent way," says Mr. Hesse. "They can't continue to act like it's 1960, assuming everybody understands what they do and how they do it."

Things have already begun to change in the Granite State. Earlier this summer, for example, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen created a judicial-selection commission to recommend candidates. Up until then, New Hampshire was the only state in which judges were nominated by the governor and had no periodic, public evaluation or reappointment process.

For his part, Brock says he is ready to resume his work. The court was well behind in its docket even before the impeachment trial began.

"They need to not be distracted and do the work of the court," Hesse says.

But, in this case, working to restore public confidence will include much more than simply pounding a gavel.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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