Chief Judge, Janet DiFiore, far left, and other Court of Appeals judges discuss the law with high school students in White Plains.
Chief Judge, Janet DiFiore, far left, and other Court of Appeals judges discuss the law with high school students in White Plains. (David Handschuh/NYLJ)

A recent three-day Court of Appeals session in White Plains has provided a model for future trips of the court outside Albany, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said.

The court invited more than 100 high school and college students last month to the Richard J. Daronco Westchester County Courthouse, and enlisted volunteer attorneys and law students to meet with the students before oral arguments to prepare them for what they would be observing.

DiFiore described the program as a “tremendous success.”

The chief judge said such trips are important because they give more New Yorkers a close-up look at the workings of a court that affects all of them but that they might not otherwise have a chance to see. That, in turn, inspires public confidence in the courts, she said.

But she said the session in White Plains gave her an opportunity to promote her “intense interest” in educating young people about the workings of the courts. Holding arguments outside Albany, she said, “is a way to reach greater numbers of young people around the state, to educate them about the court and the justice system, and hopefully pique their interest in the law and public service.”

The court, New York’s highest, has gone on the road several times in recent years: in 2016 to Rochester—its first sitting there in 168 years—in 2015 to the Judicial Institute at Pace Law School in White Plains and to Syracuse University College of Law, and 2012 to the Appellate Division, First Department.

At the session in White Plains, students and faculty from six high schools in Westchester County and the Bronx-Bronxville, Hackley in Tarrytown, Maria Regina and Woodlands in Hartsdale, Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Wakefield neighborhood of the Bronx, and Mount Vernon participated in the program as well as students from the Dobbs Ferry Campus of Mercy College. (DiFiore lives in Bronxville and is a graduate of Mount Vernon High School.)

About 40 students attended arguments on each day of the April 25-27 session. Before the arguments, they prepared by reading briefs in one of three criminal law cases before the court and meeting with volunteers from the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office and the Legal Aid Society and, in the case of Mercy, with students from the Elizabeth Haub School of Law from Pace University.

Five assistant district attorneys and six Legal Aid attorneys worked with the high schools. Eight students from Pace Law’s Pro Bono Scholar Program visited Mercy classrooms to answer questions about what law school was like and to discuss the upcoming arguments.

David Dorfman, who moderates the Pace Law program, said the law students saw their participation in what he called a “very rich experience” as a privilege. The Mercy students had more questions about law school than about the cases, but “very much upped their game” by the end of the preparations.

After the arguments were over, the judges met with the students for about a half-hour. They summarized their biographies and fielded what DiFiore called some “very thoughtful questions.”

Bronxville senior Alexander Oman said that the judges were very “down to earth.” The Mercy students “couldn’t believe the judges would take time to meet with them,” said Donna Bookin, a faculty member in the school’s legal studies program, adding that the students valued insights into the judges’ individual paths to the bench because the students “want to be there.”

Bronxville social studies teacher Steven Klurfeld, one of several teachers who went to the court with the school’s students, said they were “riveted” during the arguments.

Oman, who loves law and government but had never attended a court proceeding before the session, said it was “awesome to see the justice system in action,” adding that the experience “absolutely confirmed” his desire to become a lawyer.

As she sat in the courtroom reflecting on her experience in mock trial, Maria Regina senior Morgan Shanske said that she felt an “overwhelming sense of pride” to be there. She said that the “passion” shown by everyone in the courtroom from the judges to the court officers “reassured me” that playing an active role in the community is “what I expect to be doing for the rest of my life.”

Assistant district attorney Paula Branca-Santos, who is the lawyer-coach of the Maria Regina mock trial team, said that the students were “inspired” by their exposure to the court. One said she “got chills” in entering the courtroom. They also were “very engaged” in creating a Google Doc to discuss the issues in their case, she said.

Maria Regina is an all-girls school, and Branca-Santos said the students were impressed that three of the six judges they were observing were women.

Prosecutor Lisa Denig said that Hackley debate students were “quite amused” as she and Legal Aid attorney Rebecca Schenk sparred with each other during preparatory sessions.

Denig said the students had more questions than they were ready to answer. She called the program “a really excellent way to introduce students to our criminal justice system.”

Schenk said that most citizens don’t understand the legal system, and “we don’t teach kids enough about government.” She said that she hoped that the Court of Appeals program gave the students some idea of their role in the system.

Although she said that future court trips outside Albany would have an educational component, DiFiore said that it is unlikely that the frequency of such trips would increase, given the “extreme amount of logistics” required. But her spokesman, Lucian Chalfen, said it might consider inviting Albany-area students to arguments next school year.