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N.H. Supreme Court Holds Session Before Upper Valley Students

  • From left, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Gary Hicks, Associate Justices Patrick Donovan and James Bassett prepare to take the bench at Hanover High School's auditorium to hear two cases as part of their 2018 "On The Road" series on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The New Hampshire Supreme Court listens to Jeffrey R. Keenan's attorney Randall Clark present his case in front of Hanover High School students during the Supreme Court's 2018 "On The Road" series on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Supreme Court Associate Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi answers a Hanover High student's question about being the third woman to serve on the New Hampshire Supreme Court at Hanover High School on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Associate Justice Patrick Donovan listens to oral arguments in the first of two cases Supreme Court hears at Hanover High School on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2018

Hanover — One by one, each of New Hampshire’s five Supreme Court justices, clad in black robes and carrying folders, filed past attorneys and onlookers before taking their seats at a large table before them.

And at the same time the justices sat down, so did the more than 100 students who gathered in a temporary courtroom inside Hanover High School’s auditorium on Thursday morning to get a firsthand look at how the justice system operates.

The Supreme Court was in Hanover as part of its “On the Road” program, which brings the justices to a new school every year. Hanover High marks the 20th location and the first in the Upper Valley since 2003, when the event came to Dartmouth College.

“I think all of us would say unanimously that doing these On the Road things we consider a highlight of the year,” Chief Justice Robert Lynn said. “It’s very, very enjoyable for us, and we hope that you get a lot out of it also.”

The court heard arguments on two cases during its Hanover High session. And while both drew questions from the justices and students, it was the second case that resulted in the most pointed inquiries.

In January 2017, the license and registration of Jeffrey Keenan was suspended because of a lack of car insurance. At the time, the state Department of Safety said they would consider reinstating the privileges if Keenan purchased a policy for high-risk drivers.

Although his license ultimately was reinstated, Keenan’s registration still was suspended when he was pulled over in August 2017 driving his son’s vehicle in southern New Hampshire.

Police cited Keenan for violating a law that states “any person who shall drive or permit to be driven a vehicle owned or controlled by him upon any way after his registration has been suspended or revoked shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” He was convicted at trial, was fined $500 and had his license suspended another 30 days.

But the justices on Thursday asked what good a state-issued driver’s license is when the state argues that Keenan needed a valid vehicle registration to drive, even a car that doesn’t belong to him.

Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Woodcock argued that when crafting the bill, the Legislature intended to set up a two-step process to prevent high-risk drivers from going without insurance. But she did not defend the wisdom of those lawmakers, and acknowledged the law is broadly written and confusing.

“You have your license but you really can’t drive. What’s the point of (the license) if it does not mean anything?” Kimball Union Academy student Sophia Gardner asked after the hearing.

“That’s an excellent question, and I wish I had a really good answer for it. I don’t,” Woodcock replied.

The attorney then went on to explain that her office is charged with defending the state in appeals cases, not crafting laws or determining whether they’re worth fighting for. She did go on to say the legislation was poorly written.

“I’m stuck with the words that are in the statute, and I do my best to defend them,” Woodcock said.

After the proceedings, students asked the justices about issues ranging from the effectiveness of oral arguments to whether one of the justices resembled a former Saturday Night Live cast member.

“Has anyone ever told you you look like Bill Hader?” one student asked Lynn, the chief justice, to laughter from the audience.

“I don’t know who Bill Hader is,” Lynn, 69, replied with a smile.

Jackson Ray, a junior at Hanover High School, asked whether the court takes any cases too complex for a good answer, and whether there are any cases that “are just silly.”

“The answer is yes to both,” Lynn said, adding that the court reviews roughly 800 cases a year, and hears about 200 oral arguments.

Some cases, such as those regarding insurance and regulatory issues, are incredibly complex, he said, while others seem to be without any merit.

All of the justices also said that the oral arguments they do hear can affect the outcome of cases.

“I’d say 20 percent of the time or 30 percent of the time something happens at the oral argument that convinces me to at least take another look at it and maybe change my mind,” Lynn said.

Students asked about the justices’ personal views, too. One asked Associate Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi to reflect on her status as the third woman appointed to the high court.

Hantz Marconi said she was once employed in more male-dominated fields — construction and politics — and is seeing many fields open up to an ever-increasing number of women.

“Moving into the law actually increased the number of women that I dealt with because half of law school classes now are women, and you run into a lot more women in practice,” she said. “It’s nice that the times are changing, and being the third woman on the court is a big responsibility because it is a big deal to a lot of people.”

Speaking after the event, students said they were surprised by the candid back-and-forth between justices and attorneys during the proceedings.

Court hearings often are depicted as boring affairs where a judge sits and patiently waits from the bench to hear lawyers state their cases, said Colm Seigne, a junior from Norwich.

But the Supreme Court justices were quick to ask pointed questions, interrupt attorneys and challenge their interpretation of the law, he said.

“I didn’t realize how aggressive it was,” Seigne said. “I thought it was a lot more chill.”

Chrissy Aman, a junior from Hanover, said she also was surprised by the probing questions asked by the justices.

Aman took a constitutional law class last year that went to Concord to see the Supreme Court. However, she noted that Chief Justice Robert Lynn appears more assertive and quick to jump into discussions than his predecessor, retired Justice Linda Dalianis.

“I’ve never seen or heard a case be discussed like this, and it’s really sobering to see how it’s done,” Hanover junior Charlotte Lamm said. “You really need to be ready as a lawyer, be very prepared in the case you’re being assigned, or else you will be embarrassed.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.