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Aside from the three black-robed justices sitting at the front of the room, Oct. 12 was far from a typical oral argument day for the First District Court of Appeal. Justices Mark Simons, Barbara Jones and Linda Gemello weren’t sitting at their usual judicial bench, but at a long, apron-covered table atop a jury-rigged stage. Display cases with photos and student art lined the left wall of the room, while a hand-painted sign on the right proudly declared this the “Home of the Mt. Diablo Red Devils.” Normally, this would be the cafeteria at Concord’s Mt. Diablo High School. But on this day it served as the San Francisco-based First District’s courtroom. And rather than a roomful of attorneys, Simons, Jones and Gemello looked out on about 300 high school seniors getting their first taste of the appellate courts as two cases were argued in front of them. Some of the teens were dressed to the nines, while others wore T-shirts and tennis shoes. Most listened attentively, but some slumped in their seats, yawned with boredom or dozed with head in hands. At least two boys were separated for whispering and chuckling under their breath. The two-hour event, which included a question-and-answer session between the justices and the students, was part of the First District’s public outreach program. All six of the state’s appeal courts have such programs, each unique in its own way, and all have the same goal � to educate the public, especially high school students, about the judicial process, and hopefully encourage a few legal careers. What stands out about the approach taken by the First District and a couple of other appellate courts is that rather than having students bused to a local courthouse � as the Supreme Court prefers � the appellate justices go to the schools themselves. While appellate courts have held arguments at law schools around the state for years, it’s generally agreed that Sacramento’s Third District was the first to regularly take its act to high schools � beginning in April 2000. But the trend is picking up statewide, with most appeal courts now hearing cases in public schools two to four times a year. Justices and their staffs give much of the credit to Chief Justice Ronald George, who has long stressed the importance of public interaction. Under his direction, the state’s Judicial Council adopted a rule in 1999 encouraging judges to become more involved in their communities. George personally took to the streets in 2001 when he led the Supreme Court on a road trip to Santa Ana, where dozens of students and dignitaries heard oral arguments. Once a year since then, the court has held special sessions targeting students in different cities around the state, the latest held in Santa Barbara earlier this month.
Too often, the courts are “either not interested in [young people] or interested in what they’re not doing right.”

Joseph Harrison Teacher at Mt. Diablo High School


“The chief justice is very interested in outreach of all kinds,” Justice Simons said. “And it seems to me high school students are a particularly great group to reach out to and a great group to inform about the way courts operate � especially the court of appeal � and to remind them they are part of the public we serve and work for.” CASE STUDIES Third District Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland, whose court has made it to 15 counties and planned to hold oral arguments this week at San Juan High School in Citrus Heights, said interacting with students has made him “feel good” about the future of the country. “As justices, we see the underbelly of society,” he said. “We see all the bad things people do to each other. And it’s just refreshing to see there are so many enthusiastic and intelligent students out there.” After the First District’s arguments at Mt. Diablo High School, Justices Simons, Jones and Gemello fielded several questions. Among them: What is second-degree robbery? What constitutes a strike under the Three Strikes law? Why are there no witnesses in the appellate court proceedings? What is a misdemeanor? And can someone appeal an appeal? The justices were duly impressed. “Our choice to come here reflects the high regard in which your school is held,” Simons said. “Ninety-nine percent of you were rapt [during arguments], and it confirms all the good things I’ve heard.” Heather Nevis, a former lawyer who now teaches history, government and economics at the school and who helped organize the event, said that while some students couldn’t have cared less, others got a good idea about how the courts work. “They saw the level of thought that goes into this kind of process,” she said. “It made what we cover in class a lot more relevant to them.” The day before the arguments at Mt. Diablo, seniors at the 1,600-student school discussed the two pending cases � one involving the Three Strikes law and the other challenging the Contra Costa County sheriff department’s recording of inmates’ outgoing telephone calls � with local attorneys. Students had been supplied with copies of the court briefs and a short summary of the facts and issues. Kevin Brodehl, a partner at Walnut Creek’s Morgan Miller Blair, discussed the cases with at least one class, explaining the legal issues so the kids wouldn’t be lost during arguments. “It kind of removes some of the mystery and gets the students exposed to what happens up at the court of appeal level,” he said. Joseph Harrison, who teaches government and history at Mt. Diablo, said that by coming to the students, the justices were recognizing “the value of these young people.” Too often, he added, the courts are “either not interested in them or interested in what they’re not doing right.” Nevis said she was especially pleased that her ethnically diverse students got to see arguments by a black lawyer, a Hispanic attorney and two female counselors. “It’s important for our students to see that,” she said. The trip marked the First District’s second court session at a high school, after one in February at Acalanes High School in Lafayette. In fact, said clerk and administrator Diana Herbert, efforts are already under way to hold arguments at a school in Marin County. BOMBS AND SNOWY MOUNTAINS None of the state’s appellate courts take the same approach with their outreach programs. Fresno’s Fifth District holds oral arguments about twice a year in local courthouses instead of schools, while the Second District in Los Angeles prefers to have kids bused to its downtown courtroom as part of its Appellate Court Experience program. San Jose’s Sixth District holds court in front of students every other year in the Monterey City Council chambers, and annually pays a visit to Santa Clara University School of Law. The Fourth District’s three divisions take different tacks, said Steven Kelly, the court’s San Diego-based clerk and administrator. The Orange County branch, he said, stays put in its Santa Ana courtroom, while the Riverside division has traveled as far as Bishop in Inyo County for oral arguments. Kelly said the San Diego branch � which hears appeals from only two counties � takes occasional trips across the Laguna Mountains to high schools in El Centro in Imperial County. “Of course you know,” he said, “it gets pretty hot out there � 120 degrees � so you have to time your visit.” And things don’t always go as planned. One year, Kelly said, a bomb threat was called in to the school when the justices were already en route. “All of a sudden, the highway patrol van pulled off the highway,” Kelly said. “I knew something was up because we went to a Burger King.” In the interim, he said, the justices were driven to the police department where they mingled with the students under some trees. “We never knew whether [the bomb threat] was just to embarrass the court with the justices coming,” Kelly said, “or someone was just angry at a ruling.” Scotland said there also are weather concerns, considering that many of his court’s 23 counties are in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and can be nearly inaccessible because of winter snow. He hopes to hold a session next fall in Modoc County, situated at the far northeastern part of the state near the Oregon and Nevada borders. “That’s going to be the far reaches of our district,” Scotland said. Planning for oral arguments off site can be a logistical nightmare, too. Setting up a cafeteria to serve as a courtroom isn’t easy, and neither is coordinating the comings and goings of hundreds of students. “You have no idea how much work it is,” said Julie Bagoye, assistant clerk for the Fifth District. “It takes me months and months ahead of time to make it happen.” In fact, Michael Yerly, clerk and administrator of the Sixth District, said his court holds oral arguments in schools and other locations only if requested by the locals. “We don’t like to impose ourselves on them,” he said. Case selection is another task. Students aren’t known for sitting quietly for long stretches of time, especially if what they’re hearing isn’t very exciting. “We try to take cases that catch the interests of the students, that have a moral to the story,” Scotland said. And most of the courts limit the number of cases to four. “For kids to sit for two to three hours is not really realistic,” said Bagoye. That was evident at Mt. Diablo High School. After the first argument went about 40 minutes, kids started fidgeting more. But they got right back into the swing of things when the justices started taking questions. Third District Presiding Justice Scotland, whose court offers two-day student sessions, said he often asks how many kids in the crowd have thought about going to law school. “The first day, not many hands are raised,” he said. “But the next day more hands are raised. It demonstrates that [judges] are real people.”

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