Liam H. Flake
On Thursday, October 18, Fossil Ridge High School was given the opportunity to host Courts in the Community, a Colorado program that aims to give high school students a better understanding of the judicial process in the United States. Through the program, the Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments for two cases in Fossil’s Performing Arts Center.
The program began in 1986, and the court continues to travel to two high schools each year today. According to the Colorado Judicial Branch’s website, “[The program] gives high school students hands-on experience in how the Colorado judicial system operates and illustrates how disputes are resolved in a democratic society.” Fossil was nominated for Courts in the Community several years ago, and was picked this year.
Every senior at Fossil is required to take a government class, and each student currently in one was invited to watch the cases. In addition, several U.S. History classes, Debate classes, and members of clubs like Model United Nations were invited to attend. Each teacher was also allotted several spots at a luncheon subsequent to the arguments, and they picked a handful of their students based on interest in the judicial process. At the luncheon, five or six students and a teacher sat at a table with a justice to ask questions.
The arguments heard by the Colorado Supreme Court happened exactly as they would’ve in the courthouse, but the day began with remarks by principal Julie Chaplain and Chief Justice Nathan B. Coats, among others. Students learned about the difference between a jury trial, which intend to determine whether criminal charges are due, and an appellate court, in which the issue in question is about constitutionality of court proceedings. In an appellate court, no new information can be provided – lawyers simply make an argument based on the proceedings of the previous trials and the known information, and the justices can ask questions based on what they hear.
The court then heard People of the State of Colorado v. Mikel Morehead and People of the State of Colorado v. Simon Kubuugu. Previously to the event, students were given packets prepared by the lawyers and court staff which explained the cases without excessive legal jargon. Each lawyer was given half an hour to make their argument to the court, and once that was done, the justices took recess.
As Justice Richard L. Gabriel explained at the luncheon, the justices take an initial vote on the case when they take recess. They discuss their thoughts, and then the Chief Justice picks one member of the majority to write the majority opinion. However, the justices can change their minds until the opinion is published, which usually takes several weeks or months.
When the justices returned from initial deliberations, students could ask them questions as well. Justice Melissa Hart explained that she loves holding court in high schools because, “you guys are so excited about the law, and not jaded yet.” Several justices agreed with Hart, finding that Courts in the Community gives everyone involved a chance to learn something. The justices also specifically thanked the sound crew, which consisted of Fossil TV students, for the clearest sound they have ever had at a high school. The TV program also created the official record of the proceedings.