State justices hold court for education

High school students watch two trials in the JDHS auditorium

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2006

Some Juneau-Douglas High School students had a supreme lesson in the law Friday.

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The Alaska Supreme Court heard oral arguments for two cases in the JDHS auditorium as part of an educational outreach event that gave students a firsthand look at the state's highest court. The court will render its decisions on these official appeals at a later date.

"It was really cool to see the whole process because I don't really know a whole lot about what goes on in a courtroom," sophomore Colin Flynn said. "So it was kind of my first time really seeing what they do."

Five justices heard oral arguments for two cases: Morgan C. Hartman vs. State of Alaska, Department of Administration, Division of Motor Vehicles - an appeal regarding the suspension of a driver's license for driving while under the influence - and the City of Skagway vs. Terry Robertson, doing business as Skaguay Tour Company, and David Lee doing business as Southeast Tours - an appeal regarding a city ordinance and the free speech of tour company operators.

Government teacher Gary Lehnhart said he invited Justice Walter "Bud" Carpenetti to JDHS a number of times over the years to speak to his class about the judiciary branch of government.

Lehnhart said there also has been talk over the years about the educational value of students seeing the actual court work. "Wouldn't it be great if my students could get to the real Supreme Court? - which is problematic," he said.

"We do take field trips down to the Legislature, and we get involved in that branch, but it's more difficult to get involved in (the judicial) branch," he said. "While we can simulate it in the classroom, this is even better."

Carpenetti said the court was scheduled to hear six cases over two days while convening in Juneau.

"We thought, well maybe we have a couple of cases that would be appropriate for argument at the high school, because the idea had been generally kicked around," Carpenetti said.

Lehnhart and Carpenetti both said they hope the students took away a greater understanding of how government works.

"When they've had the chance to take part in the process they're going to understand it better, they're going to remember it better, they can articulate it better, and they're going to feel a larger part of it," Lehnhart said.

Neil Nesheim, area court administrator for Southeast Alaska, said it has been a long time since the justices have heard oral arguments outside of a courtroom.

"The Supreme Court used to do this a number of years ago - 20, 25 years ago," he said. "They would go out to a number of the smaller communities and hold court. And I think this is perhaps the Supreme Court's first step in sort of revitalizing that effort."

Carpenetti said this is the first time the court has heard arguments in an Alaska high school that he knows of.

"I thought it went really well - good arguments and the kids seemed to be interested," he said.

The arguments were not open to all students. They were limited to a couple hundred kids. Entire classes that were interested, ranging from world history to English, sat in on the proceedings.

"We really didn't want this to be an assembly kind of situation," Lehnhart said. "We wanted to limit it to students who would be prepped on the cases because it's difficult to follow the issues."

Even with the preparation the students had to pay close attention.

"One of the things that was difficult about it was all the legal language was sometimes hard to understand what they meant," senior Caitlin Bedford said.

As lawyers argued on behalf of their clients with the judges on the stage, the students sat in virtual silence in the auditorium seating.

"It was kind of cool. I didn't realize there's multiple judges instead of just one and that they can actually interact with attorneys," senior Theo Kennedy said. "I think it's a pretty good experience. You really got to see how a court went on."

The Hollywood image of court proceedings was brought into reality for a number of students on Friday.

"It was definitely different than I expected," sophomore Lindsey Daniel said. "I was expecting what you would see in the movies and stuff. It was a lot more realistic and it was more toned down than I expected. I was expecting like a judge with a gavel that would be banging it. It was just interesting to see how they really work."

Carpenetti said it was just another day in court.

"We do this all the time," he said. "Lawyers come in and make arguments on all sides of those issues and judges decide them after hearing the arguments, so it seemed like a good idea to do it in front of an audience like this."

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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