Traveling gavels: State's high court hears real cases at schools

"Are you guys allowed to interrupt whenever you want?"

This isn't something that the justices of the New Hampshire Supreme Court are used to hearing. The question came from a curious high-schooler last month when the court took a bona fide "road trip" across the state.

"We casually refer to it as going 'on the road,' but we see it as an ongoing public outreach program and educational effort," says public information officer Laura Kiernan.

This is New Hampshire's first attempt to give high school and college students a closeup look at what goes on in a courtroom. There are similar programs in Tennessee, West Virginia, Minnesota, and Massachusetts.

Their first outing took the New Hampshire justices to St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. Mike Beeman, a law teacher at Pinkerton Academy, says the program was "phenomenal." He brought along 43 students for the occasion.

Two actual cases were heard that day: one on First Amendment rights in high school, and one on medical malpractice. After the hearings, the judges went to a back room to make their decisions, and then came out in their everyday clothes to talk with the students.

"It's very important that students learn as much as they can about the role of the judicial branch," says Chief Justice David Brock. "It might very well affect their lives in the future."

Many students came away with a newfound interest in the courts. "It was like 'Judge Judy,' but better; it was very exciting," says Goffstown High junior Greg Baker. Eric Romein, a teacher at Greg's school, says he would bring the whole school if he could. The court plans to hold two such sessions every year.

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