Panel discussion will consider pressure on the court from national debates

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“Political challenges influencing (or not) those serving on the bench” is the topic of a panel discussion Wednesday August 11 from 5:30-7:30 pm in the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, organized to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program.

The panel discussion, to be moderated by Doug Cabral, editor of The Times will feature senior federal judge Norman Stahl (US Court of Appeals 1st District), retired justice of the Supreme Court of Texas Robert (Bob) Gammage and Joseph Sollitto, clerk of the courts/magistrate for the county of Dukes County. Opening remarks will be delivered by Ann Brown, chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission during the Clinton administration.

This public forum, with a suggested donation of $25, will be the first that the nonprofit Mediation program, founded in 1984, has ever held and its first effort at public fundraising.

The Mediation program provides free dispute resolution services on cases referred by the Edgartown division of the district court, the probate and family courts and the superior court on the Island.

Also known as the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Dispute Resolution, the organization provides its services for a fee to mediate community conflicts involving neighbors, landlords and tenants, homeowners and contractors, business owners, parents and children, partners, and spouses, and elders.

“It works; it is valuable in resolving cases short of trial and reducing people’s costs in legal fees,” Elena Mercurio, program coordinator told The Times.

Since expanding its services to provide community services in 1990, the Mediation program state contract provided most of the organization’s annual operating budget. Cuts in the FY 2011 state budget totally eliminated the $40,000 Mediation program stipend.

“We have trimmed expenses, the fees that mediators receive have been cut, and the staff and rent costs have been reduced. Our survival is at stake,” Mrs. Mercurio told The Times. “I do not know how much longer that we can continue. There have been a number of other community mediation programs around the state that have been forced to close down” due to the state budget elimination, she said.

Panel discussion member Mr. Gammage, a Houston native, was elected to the Supreme Court of Texas in 1991 and served there until 1995. Previously he was a member of the Texas house of representatives from 1971-1973, the Texas senate 1973-1976, a member of the U.S. house of representatives 1977-1979 and was a justice on the Texas court of appeals from 1982-1991. He is now in private practice and serves as a consultant, arbitrator, and mediator.

Judge Stahl, a New Hampshire native, was appointed to the federal bench by President George Bush in 1990. Judge Stahl previously was in private practice and served as a state and national delegate to the Republican party convention in 1988.

Mr. Sollitto was initially elected as clerk of the courts for the county of Dukes County in 1976. He has been re-elected five times to the six-year term post. A part-time police officer while attending law school, once admitted to the bar Mr. Sollitto was in private practice until he became an assistant clerk of the courts for the county of Dukes County in 1974.

As moderator, Mr. Cabral said there are several major issues he intends to explore, including the debate on television cameras in the courtrooms, the impact on judges of the public reaction to the judgments imposed from the bench, how judges keep their bearings with the pressure to seek donations or maintain relationships with colleagues in private practice and mediation.

“I want to know how judges regard mediation. Is mediation a real way to resolve disputes or it is a mechanism to keep their dockets from being overcrowded?” Mr. Cabral said.

Following the panel discussion the conversation will be opened to questions from the audience as well.