Dedication of Children’s Room one highlight of Law Week

May 1-7, 2023

By The Daily Record Staff


It was 1957 when American Bar Association President Charles S. Rhyne envisioned a special day for celebrating our legal system. But the idea was first conceived a few years before by Hicks Epton, an attorney in Wewoka, Oklahoma, who in 1951 started a public relations program called “Know Your Liberties – Know Your Courts Week,” which quickly spread across the country. 


Rhyme had served as President Eisenhower’s legal counsel at one time, and in 1958, Ike proclaimed May 1 to be Law Day, USA. Three years later Congress designated May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day. This program continues today and is now celebrated in many countries around the globe.


In 1958, after his proclamation, Eisenhower said, “In a very real sense, the world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive it must choose the rule of law.”


As always, the Pulaski County Bar Association has many events planned for this first week in May, highlighted by a Blood Drive and Lunch and Learn on Tuesday (with pizza!), a Reading Day at Williams Elementary on Wednesday, an Interfaith Breakfast Thursday morning at St. Andrews Cathedral, followed that evening by a reception and private tour of the Scipio A. Jones exhibit at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center.


Also on Tuesday will be a very special event at the Pulaski County Courthouse, with an open house for the new children’s room, dedicated to the memories of Judge Vann and Cathy Smith, who the legal community, and many others, lost last year.


In a recent meeting with Circuit Judge Shawn Johnson, we learned more about the room and how it came to be. 


The Daily Record: So, Judge, tell us a little about the children’s room.


Judge Shawn Johnson: Back in 2008, Judge Vann Smith, Judge Ellen Brantley, and others who worked on domestic and probate cases, decided to create a children’s room, so that during hearings that involved children, or during hearings in which people brought their children to the courthouse, they had a place to go. It had brightly colored objects, it had books, it had toys and a TV, as well as comfortable furniture for them and their parents. It was something, as I understand it, that the judges used in order to make sure there was order in the courtroom but also privacy and safety for children.  The room was dedicated by the Pulaski County Bar Foundation, which is a separate entity from the PCBA.


DR: And it has now been dedicated to Judge Smith?


JSJ: Yes, and to his wife Cathy, in both their memories. We miss them both. They were pillars of the community and we are delighted to have this open house in their honor. When Judge Smith died I lost a mentor, but I feel I still get to work with him every day because his writings are in every case I work on. So, I consider him like my senior partner.


DR: And the children’s room he helped start, do you think it has been what he hoped it would be?


JSJ: Oh, I think so. We have a lot of children who use it. People ask if it’s really necessary and the answer is yes.  During the pandemic we did a lot of Zoom meetings off-site, but as things began getting back to normal we needed a place for the kids to go, because there is crying and laughter and noise, you know, typical kid’s stuff. I consulted with Vann and he felt very strongly, and I agreed, that the children’s room was important for the protection of children and their privacy and for the order of the court. But after 15 years some updates were needed. With the help of the county, we got in touch with the Wrightsville Correctional Facility that prepares furniture for learning trades for inmate trustees. They came up and took measurements and the county agreed to cover the expense. They put cushions in a u-shaped layout which allows children to play in the pit of the room and bought a colorful children’s rug for the floor. They also painted the room because it looked very institutional. And we replaced the TV. So, we are grateful. County Judge Hyde has been tremendously helpful making sure that the children in the county are given this opportunity to be safe from the worries of the court.


DR: And now Cathy Smith is a part of this as well.


JSJ: When she passed away one of the things her family asked was for contributions in her honor be made to multiple locations. One was a cause that was very important to Vann and her, which was the children’s room. So, they took donations from people who wanted to make donations in honor of Cathy and in honor of Vann and sent them to the Pulaski County Bar Association so that the association could stock the room with books, children’s books, toys and an updated TV. We are streaming TV. So now the children can watch Paw Patrol and not be distracted by what is happening in the court room.


DR: Does it get crowded?


JSJ: It can. We are lucky in this courthouse that we typically don’t need that room for more than one family in an afternoon. Which is good. It gives the children free reign of the room. But I can think of situations where there might be two or three families who use it at once. 


DR: Is there a person who monitors?


JSJ: Not a monitor who stays in the room, but it has glass door so the room is able to be monitored from the outside, without disturbing the family. Every bailiff has access to the room and a key to unlock it. It is locked every night to preserve the items that are in there, the toys and books. 


One really exciting thing is the bar association, to the best of my understanding, will help us every year collect books for that room. And the idea is that the children who come in there will always have the opportunity to take a book. We think that is important because it gives them some understanding of the peace that the room is designed to create and a source of learning and enlightenment for our community. I am interested in possibly, at a later date, finding ways to involve the Imagination Library, which I think is Dolly Parton’s organization. Through them, children sign up to receive books on a monthly basis. If we can find a way to do that, that encourages literacy in our community, then I think we should.     


Before Vann died I spoke with him and Ellen Brantley and they were both emphatic that the children’s room is essential. Because of their long-time experience, they knew what the issues are from the bench.  You have to intently listen and there is extraneous noise or distraction which can be a problem. Children are a part of our lives and this is a way to make sure their attentions are focused on things that children need to be focused on.  


1. Circuit Judge Shawn Johnson in the Children’s Room at the Pulaski County Courthouse


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