Students experience Alaska Supreme Court firsthand

Posted: Monday, September 20, 2010

"It is a one in a lifetime opportunity," Thunder Mountain High School senior Emily Keyes said as she positioned herself along side the most powerful court in Alaska. "It is extremely exciting to be a part of this with the youth court."

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Keyes and Juneau-Douglas High School junior Kerry Barto were part of JDHS auditorium packed with of high school students Friday to attend "Supreme Court Live" as part of Constitution Day.

The group heard oral arguments before the Alaska Supreme Court in two cases: Fraternal Order of Eagles v. City and Borough of Juneau and Leta Trask v. Ketchikan Gateway Borough.

"I am really psyched to be here," Barto enthused. "It is an amazing opportunity. I am really interested to see how the court system works. I am curious into seeing how these cases play out."

Mayor Bruce Botelho said the event was valuable on two levels.

"I think it is important for every citizen to have an understanding of the roles in judiciary in our society," Botelho said. "And having students see how that system works firsthand is invaluable and I am proud of the Juneau School District for seeing the importance of that civic lesson. Hopefully we will see some budding lawyers and judges out there in the audience. I hope the students see that in this country disputes are resolved peacefully, even if they are controversial and heartwrenching"

Attorney John Hartle, who represented Juneau, said it was a great program, "the real deal" and was asked if he had any idols or mentors sitting on the stage.

"Five of them," Hartle said with a laugh. "These are the best judges in the state."

The value for the high school students is in removing the mystery of the court system, said attorney Paul Grant, who argued on behalf of the Eagles.

"The court system is complicated," Grant said. "But if you take the mystery out of it, people will be more inclined to trust the system and use it for what it was intended for, and the most mysterious part is 'What does the Supreme Court do?' Everybody can go to trial or district court and see the traffic cases, people never see the Supreme Court or how it works."

Students in attendance asked about how to begin a legal career, the difference between a judge and magistrate, the value of oral arguments, and how hard is it to stay impartial.

Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti said often he has picked up a file and thinks he knows what a decision will be, but is mind is changed.

"While we are all human beings," Carpeneti said, "your mind is changed so many times it is easy to say keep your mind completely level and unbiased."

Added Justice Dana Fabe, "You put your personal views aside. You are constantly working on that and constantly trying to be a better judge."

The Supreme Court justices were asked how soon they had decided to go into law.

Justice Morgan Christen said she told her kindergarten teacher. Fabe was a music history major in college before making a change.

"After I became a lawyer my father decided he would too," Fabe said. "He went to law school at age 57 and graduated at 60, so it is never too late to make that decision."

Justice Craig Stowers majored in biology and worked for the National Park Services, while working in the Denali National Park he decided he wanted to train his mind for policy-making decisions.

"I never thought I would be a judge," Stowers said. "You have no idea what is possible. Every single one of you has the potential to do amazing things."

Justice Daniel Winfree said the last time he was in Juneau in 1970 he was more concerned about playing against the Crimson Bears on the court than studying to be in court.

"I was a truck driver and heavy equipment operator on the pipeline after high school first," Winfree said. "Any career is a great career, if you are interested in law there are a myriad of things you can do."

Carpeneti, who started the Supreme Court Live program with local teacher Gary Lehnhart, says the value is seeing one branch of government doing its work.

"It just so happens that oral argument is a really good device to show them that," Carpeneti said. "We can show them exactly the way we do it at court. We hope that they see how this branch of government works, that they appreciate what is going on, that they make suggestions for improving it if they see things that can be done differently ... every one of these kids, at some point in his or her life, is going to be in a courtroom as a juror, as a witness, as a party ... it is just really important that they know how courts work. This is one way that they can see that."

Justice Winfree stated that Southeasterners see more legislative work and civil actions but hopes the students grasp the magnitude of the event.

"I can remember being in high school and sitting in an auditorium and watching things," Winfree said. "But certainly nothing as fun, exciting, or important as this."

• Contact Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at

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