On Tuesday, October 29, the Supreme Court heard arguments at a college campus in Logan County. The arguments were a part of the LAWS program--an initiative that provides a way for high school students throughout the state to learn more about the Court, its history, and its inner workings. The students study real cases coming before the Court, read the briefs, and then watch the arguments for themselves.
In Wheeling, I gathered with a group of homeschoolers in the conference room of Bordas & Bordas. Because all of the Court’s arguments are webcasts, we were able to participate in the LAWS program remotely and watch the arguments on the big screen. Even though we were hundreds of miles away, the marvels of technology made us feel as if we were blessed with front row seats for the whole event.
We spent two weeks preparing for the arguments. The first week we talked about the courts generally and the Supreme Court’s role in our unified court system. We began the heavy lifting during the second week. That’s when we read the case summaries, dived into the briefs, and discussed the legal issues together.
I thoroughly enjoy discussing cases with students. Most of the time, the issues can be simplified and the legal jargon kept to a minimum. I love watching a student’s face when they finally “get” it--when the clouds lift and they can see the issue with clarity for the first time. And once they’ve grasped the issue, they aren’t afraid of expressing themselves and defending why they think one side or the other has the better argument.
Armed with their newfound knowledge of the law, pens, and notepads, our students gathered to see exactly how the lawyers would present their arguments and how the justices would respond. I think people watching the Court for the first time are surprised by how “hot” the bench can be. Questions seem to come from everywhere. Was the lawyer familiar with the such-and-such case? How have other courts around the country dealt with this same issue? Are you asking us to overturn old law or to carve out an exception that applies to your specific set of facts? Needless to say, appellate advocacy is not for the timid!
We discussed all of the cases over lunch and made some predictions. Here they are:
The first case was State v. Scruggs, a kidnapping case. West Virginia’s kidnapping law identifies specific facts that can affect the length of the sentence. The issue in Scruggs was whether the trial court was required under the Sixth Amendment to submit those facts to a jury. Our students believed the state had the better argument in Scruggs, and that a jury was not required to address those facts. However, the court may still have the discretion to submit the facts to a jury if it chooses to do so.
Next up was Goodwin v. Board of Education, a case involving an 18 year old student who was injured on the school’s soccer field while skipping class. This case produced some lively discussion. Our students grasped the issues, but admitted that issues involving governmental immunity are difficult to navigate. The consensus was that the school would probably end up winning this appeal.
The third case of the day was Newton v. Morgantown Machine, a case asking whether self-defense in the workplace was a substantial public policy that would support a claim for wrongful termination. Again, there was plenty of discussion and lively debate over the issues. In the end, however, it seemed like most of our students were willing to provide protection for an employee who was engaged in self-defense. How far might the Court be willing to go in providing that protection? That remains to be seen.
I am grateful to the Supreme Court for developing its LAWS program and being willing to travel so that high schoolers can see the work of the Court with their own eyes. I think our students have a much better understanding of the Court’s work and what it takes to brief and argue an appeal. I’ll be teaching a mock trial class for our homeschoolers next year. We’ll see if any of our students have been bitten by the law bug….