By ROBIN J. DAVIS
CHARLESTON -- In our professional careers as lawyers and judges, most of the children with whom we come in contact, unfortunately, have been victims of abuse or neglect. Their plight tugs at our hearts and inspires us to do what we can to make their journey through the court system faster and better.
In my 2006 term as chief justice, I said I would focus on helping those children during "The Year of the Child." And the Supreme Court did exactly that. We have new rules on handling abuse and neglect cases, and we received two federal grants that will help courts at all levels work more closely with the Department of Health and Human Resources.
I am happy that I shall get another year to continue those efforts and expand them to include improving the lives of children whose only in-person contact with a court may come during a class field trip. All children – including so-called "normal" children who are not abused, neglected or from dysfunctional families – need to know more about the judicial system and its part in our democracy.
In 2007, which I am calling "Year of the Child Too," I hope to expand the court system's educational efforts. We shall greatly enhance the Supreme Court's Web site, http://www.state.wv.us/wvsca, to include links to material that teachers and parents can use to explain the judicial system. The Court's administrative office also will work with the West Virginia Department of Education and local schools on a new initiative, "Robes to Schools."
"Robes to School" is a two-part outreach program that will allow acting and retired Supreme Court justices, circuit judges, family court judges and magistrates to make regular appearances in West Virginia schools.
Beginning in mid-January, volunteer judicial officers will participate in Read Aloud programs in elementary schools and be available as part of a speaker's bureau to talk to elementary, middle and high school classes, especially eighth grade West Virginia History classes and high school civics classes. Speakers will talk about topics of the teachers' choice, but would be best suited to discuss the role of courts in West Virginia and American government and society.
Information on those topics will be accessible on the Supreme Court Web site.
Although judicial officers may initiate contact with a particular school, it will be up to schools and/or teachers to invite readers and speakers for specific dates and times.
The Information Services Division of the Supreme Court Administrative Office will coordinate the Read Aloud program and speakers' bureau.
The "Robes to Schools" program will support the Department of Education's goal of improving civic literacy. It also will complement the work of the State Bar's Citizenship and Law-Related Education Committee. For several years, that committee has held Youth Summits around the state that bring together students of different backgrounds to discuss legal topics important to their age group. The Committee also has held sessions in cooperation with Regional Education Service Agencies to train teachers about such issues as privacy, search and seizure, and the Safe Schools Act.
In 2007, the Court also will expand the reach of the LAWS program by encouraging teachers and students across the state to participate even if they cannot attend sessions in person. LAWS, an acronym for Legal Advancement for West Virginia Students, allows high school students to attend a Supreme Court argument session in a location close to their home. We have educated about 2,000 students from fourteen counties since the program began in 1999. The next LAWS will be held in Romney on April 17, 2007. We hope to draw students from throughout the 22nd Judicial Circuit counties of Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton.
Also in 2007, the Court plans to publish an abbreviated, illustrated history of the West Virginia Supreme Court by Clerk Rory Perry. Perry has been researching the Court's history for several years and eventually will expand his 2007 work into a larger volume.
Perry also will lead preparations for the Court's 2008 celebration of the 80th anniversary of the first use of the Supreme Court chamber designed by West Virginia Capitol architect Cass Gilbert. The court began using the room in January 1928.
I look forward to working with the State Bar on these and other educational programs in 2007. And I look forward to working with you on what I'm sure you will agree is our most important work -– protecting and enhancing the lives of all West Virginia children.
Davis is Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.