Students to get front row seat to Supreme Court hearings

Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2010

Two Alaska Supreme Court appellate hearings will be heard at Juneau-Douglas High School on Friday - which is also Constitution Day - in front of hundreds of district students and community members.

One of the two cases is directly from Juneau. A court battle between the Fraternal Order of the Eagles and the City and Borough of Juneau.

The Eagles are challenging a city ordinance which prohibits smoking in private clubs, according to a synopsis of the case provided by the Alaska Supreme Court. The Eagles argue the ordinance violates freedom of association guarantees in the U.S. Constitution, and privacy rights under the Alaska Constitution.

Judge Philip Pallenberg rejected the Eagles' argument at the trial level. He held the ordinance does not infringe upon their right to associate with whomever they choose, it focuses on the activities engaged in while associating. Pallenberg also ruled it did not violate privacy rights because the club was none of the members' personal home.

The second case, Trask v. Ketchikan Gateway Borough, challenges the constitutionality of Ketchikan's efforts to remove Biblical passages from a homeowner's roof, under a sign ordinance that bars roof signs.

Argument in the first case begins at 9:50 a.m. All parts of Friday's arguments and discussion are open to the public. Anyone attending should arrive at JDHS by 9:20 a.m. to allow for security screening, and visitors are strongly encouraged to not bring personal items, including electronic devices, according to a press release from the supreme court.

Supreme Court LIVE had a trial here two years ago when then-judge Walter "Bud" Carpeneti, now Chief Justice, and JDHS social studies teacher Gary Lehnhart brought it to the high school.

"Gary Lehnhart, he's a really great teacher," Carpeneti said. "He's one of the first people who suggested it. I talked about it with my colleagues and it worked really well."

Carpeneti said when he became Chief Justice a year ago he wanted to institutionalize it because of its success in Juneau.

The first year, oral arguments were conducted at JDHS as an "educational device so students could see what the supreme court does," Carpeneti said.

He said the program works really well because local attorneys are excited to volunteer and explain the cases to students in classrooms before the hearings. After students are briefed on the cases and the issues, they get an understanding of the process and get to see it in action.

Carpeneti said after oral arguments are heard, trial lawyers take questions from students (or the public).

"They have a pretty good discussion," he said. "Kids get answers on what they just heard. It's really a hands-on for kids to get into the nuts and bolts of how an oral presentation of the high appellate court goes."

Barbara Hood, communications counsel with the Alaska Court System, said the program is done to help educate students about the role of the courts, how cases go through the legal system - specifically the appeals process, and give them first-hand experience on real cases.

"I think that it's an unusual and very valuable opportunity to see hands-on how courts work," she said. "... (We hope) that they will come away with a much deeper understanding of how judges consider issues."

Lehnhart said he got the idea for the event because Carpeneti and his wife volunteered a lot with the school. All four of their children went to JDHS.

He said that in his government class, he focuses on the Supreme Court a lot.

"I have a Supreme Court simulation and out of that it grew over the years as he and I worked on stuff," Lehnhart said. "He's just very comfortable with high school kids and doing serious things with him."

Students are prepped ahead of time and Lehnhart appreciates that the Supreme Court conducts real cases for the students and believes the system is important to understand.

"One of the reasons I emphasize the Supreme Court in the first place is I think there's a lot of people who really don't realize the affect Supreme Court justices have on our every day lives and the direction of our country," he said. "We're getting students to contemplate the meaning of the constitution and are really looking at it. That can be some pretty sophisticated stuff. ... They have to come to some kind of understanding about what we're entitled to and what potentially we're not entitled to."

Students from all three high schools have been invited to participate. An estimated 400-500 people are expected to attend.

• Contact Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at

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