While many of the Westminster High School students had practical questions for Colorado’s Supreme Court Justices and attorneys — questions like what makes a person a legal expert on a given topic …
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While many of the Westminster High School students had practical questions for Colorado’s Supreme Court Justices and attorneys — questions like what makes a person a legal expert on a given topic or about careers in law — one student was just curious: What was that thing on their desks?
“It is, in fact, a timer,” said Justice Monica Marquez, one of the seven sitting justices sitting on the stage at Westminster High School May 7.
The justices heard arguments for two pending cases in the school’s auditorium, part of the Courts in the Community education program. The State Supreme Court takes its operation on the road two times each year, once in spring and once in the fall, to a Colorado high school. Everything comes with them — legal staff, attorneys from both sides, the judges’ robes, their chairs and the timers.
The attorneys from both sides get exactly 30 minutes to argue their case in front of the judges. The lights on the timer change from green to yellow after 20 minutes Marquez said, reminding the attorneys the clock is ticking.
“Each advocate has a list of points they want to make, but they end up answering a lot questions from us,” she said. “The yellow light let them know they only have ten minutes left to make a point they haven’t made yet. And of course, the red means stop. You’re done.”
Once both sides of the first case had made their arguments, the Justices left the stage and talked among themselves. Chief Justice Nathan B. Coats.assigned one of the other six to write an opinion, which the justices would decide weeks or months later.
Then, they returned to hear arguments in the second case.
Westminster students got to hear both sets of arguments and then talk to attorneys from both sides while the justices were out of the room. The justices returned to the stage after discussing the second case to answer student questions themselves. And then justices and students had lunch.
Teacher Scott Troy said he learned of the program four years ago and applied to bring the court to Westminster. He teaches a class on the Theory of Knowledge and that the court, the arguments and the legal cases would be a perfect exclamation point to his class.
“Now, four years later, I still teach that class - thankfully,” Troy said. “But it’s gotten much bigger than just my class.”
Students from Troy’s current class joined students from Westminster High history and social studies classes in the gym all morning to listen to the arguments and then stuck around afterward to get the justices’ opinions.
“I wanted them to come away with a real sense of what the judicial branch of our government really looks like,” he said. “It’s one thing to learn about it in a government class, but it’s another to watch it and see it and participate.”
Students said they were impressed.
“I didn’t even know this was a thing that they did,” Sophomore Juliana Knief said. “Honestly, I thought something this official would maintain itself in one venue for the entire time. I think it’s a really cool program they have to expand around the communities and especially to our high school. It’s a beautiful thing in our state and I’m really glad they were able to come here.”
Senior Carter Schweitzer asked the judges what it takes to be a legal expert on cases. She said she’s interested in a career as a forensic anthropologist, something she’s learned about watching television.
It’s not like television, the justices said.
“Seek out internship opportunities, something that will give you exposure to how it happens in the real world as opposed to the TV version,” Justice Brian Boatright said. “That way you an evaluate if it really is something you want to put your time, energy and money into.”
DUI expertise, free speech
The cases the justice reviewed are actually state supreme court, but ones that students would be interested in hearing.
“They are looking for cases that are not incredibly complicated, that they think the students will find interesting and that are appropriate for this kind of setting,” said Jon Sarche, spokesman for the State Court Administrator’s Office.
The first case involved a man, Randy Campbell, arrested by Englewood Police in 2013 on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. Campbell was pulled over because a headlight in his truck wasn’t working, but the officer testified that he smelled alcohol on Campbell’s breath and that his eyes were bloodshot, he slurred his speech and dropped his wallet. The officer conducted a roadside sobriety test and arrested Campbell.
The officer testified in Arapahoe County Court about the roadside tests as a lay witness, not an expert. Campbell was convicted by a jury of driving while ability impaired — a decision he appealed and lost.
In arguments to the Supreme Court, Campbell’s attorney Shelby Deeney argued that the police officer should have been qualified as an expert before being allowed to testify.
The second case revolved around a Twitter dispute between Denver-area high schoolers in the wake of the Dec. 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School. The juvenile defendant, referred to as RD in court documents, made several threats on the digital medium against AC, a student at Thomas Jefferson High School.
RD, who did not attend either Arapahoe or Thomas Jefferson, warned that AC would “catch a bullet” if the two ever met, among other threats. He also tweeted out an image of a handgun.
He was found guilty of harassment by communication in District Court and required to write an essay explaining that his tweets were inappropriate — something he did.
He continued to appeal the ruling, however, and it was overturned by the Court of Appeals in 2016. The Appeals Court held that the posts were neither true threats nor fighting words and were protected by the First Amendment.
It will take months for the justices to decide the case, according to Chief Justice Coats.
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