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

Article excerpt

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. …