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At the University of Pennsylvania Law School, some students who have never set foot in a courtroom got pretty close Wednesday when three judges brought court to campus. A Superior Court panel held oral arguments in the law school building, after which students were permitted to ask the judges about the appellate process and what factors they weigh in deciding cases. In particular, students learned about the importance of producing well-crafted briefs. It was the first time a Superior Court panel had held an argument session at a law school, said Judge Correale F. Stevens, who presided. Last year, argument sessions were held before students at Hazelton High School and Penn State University, and the court is planning a session at Temple Beasley School of Law in October. Wednesday, Stevens and Senior Judges John T.J. Kelly and Frank J. Montemuro Jr. heard arguments in 20 cases at the Levy Conference Center, at 34th and Chestnut streets. They had about 25 more cases listed for argument Thursday. “Sometimes in law school you don’t always get hands-on experience,” Stevens said before the session. “They’ll get to see an intermediate appellate court in action.” Stevens and Louis Rulli, a professor at the law school, coordinated the educational session at Penn. “It’s an opportunity to see an appellate court with such a wide range of civil and criminal cases, right here at the law school,” said Rulli. The Superior Court usually hears arguments in Philadelphia at its location at 6th and Walnut streets. One change the panel made to its list schedule Wednesday was to shuffle the criminal cases, Stevens said. Usually these are listed at the beginning of the day, he said, but the judges wanted to give the students coming in and out between classes a chance to observe both civil and criminal cases. The session’s timing this week was particularly appropriate for first-year law students, who are enrolled in legal writing classes requiring them to write appellate briefs and argue before a panel of retired judges next week. “This is an ideal chance to know what we’ll be up against,” said Teresa Bechtold, 23, a first-year student from Blackduck, Minn., who waited patiently for the panel to start at 9:30 a.m. with her laptop open and its cursor blinking. However, most of the students who wandered in and out of the arguments Wednesday were in their second and third years because first-year students had class most of the day. Other students admitted they were skipping class in order to attend. “We think the professors will understand,” one student said. Lawyers who participated in the arguments said the law school location wasn’t an inconvenience. “Unless it was held in my office, I would have to go somewhere anyway,” said one attorney, Stephen E. Farber of Master Weinstein Schnoll & Dodig. “I wish they’d done this 30 years ago when I was in law school. It’s a great way to learn.” Following the morning and afternoon sessions, the judges took questions from the student audience, which at varying times during the day included five to 30 pupils. Addressing the judges, Sarah Fried, a student at Widener School of Law in Wilmington, noted they often asked the attorneys about the court’s standard of review in a particular case, and other times asked what the attorneys exactly wanted the court to do. Isn’t this something attorneys are supposed to address in their briefs, Fried wanted to know. It is, said Kelly. “But sometimes when an attorney is talking, it’s good to get to the point and to say to them, ‘Look, what do you want us to do?’,” Kelly explained. “We know the issue. We’re just trying to get them to say what it is they want us to do.” Stevens explained what kind of cases the Superior Court hears and how it resolves conflicting decisions among panels — usually through en banc panels of 15 judges. He also explained how the judges take a preliminary vote after arguments, assign the opinion to be written and review the opinion later to decide whether to join or dissent. Kelly noted that while the Superior Court hears “everything that comes down the pike,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court only hears about 150 cases a year. “Once a case gets to our court, it’s the last chance for about 95 percent of the cases,” Kelly said. “So it’s important that you have excellent briefs. Because on 80 to 90 percent of the time, the briefs are what we decide cases on — not on the oral arguments of the lawyers.” That is, your legal writing courses are very important, Kelly told the students. “Have excellent writing habits and get to the point right away,” he advised. One student asked how often the quality of a lawyers’ advocacy in oral argument has an impact on a judge’s decision. “That’s an individual thing with each judge,” said Montemuro, who echoed Kelly’s emphasis on the importance of a well-written and well-argued brief. “The briefs are what we rely on for the most part,” Montemuro said. “As to whether oral argument is important, you’ll get a lot of different answers. For lawyers who stand up and read their briefs, we’ve already read those — sit down.” Another student wanted to know how the judges decide whether a decision will be an opinion or memorandum — that is, precedential or non-precedential. “We look at whether it’s new law, a matter of importance or a matter of precedence,” Stevens said. “We ask, ‘How important is this to the bar association, to the legal community?’” Attorneys can also ask the court to consider making the decision an opinion instead of a memorandum, Stevens said. One student, Jonathan Goldstein, 32, listened to the arguments for more than an hour and said he learned a lot. “You listen to the lawyers, and I don’t know how bright or not bright they are, or how good or not good their briefs are. But you know when they get up there if they can be concise, and if they know how to read the bench,” Goldstein said. “I find law school kind of dry, but this makes it come alive,” said Goldstein, a second-year student. “In class you read and talk about how fact-based cases can hinge on a procedural issue and you see here today that they do.” Tai Lui Tan, a third-year student from New York City, said she learned the arguments would be on campus in an e-mail message administrators sent to law students. “The session was helpful because I didn’t know the structure of Pennsylvania law. We focus mostly on federal law here,” Tan said. “It’s really cool they came down here.”

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