BANGOR, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court convened Wednesday morning in Peakes Auditorium at Bangor High School before 300 to 400 students and a handful of community members.
Bill Ames, the chairman of the history department, said the entire junior class and about 30 students enrolled in the Senior Seminar course that focuses on government and politics were in attendance.
“It’s urgent that the kids get to interact with government,” he said, “so that they see government not as it is written about in some textbook, but in action.”
The supreme court has gone on the road each fall for the past three years to educate high school students and the public about what it does. The court is visiting five schools this year, up from three last year. BHS was the fourth stop at a high school this month for the court’s seven justices. Last week, they met at Sanford High School. The court visited Cony High School in Augusta on Monday and Winthrop High School on Tuesday. The justices are scheduled to convene at 9 a.m. today in the gymnasium at Shead High School in Eastport.
“It’s an opportunity for the students to see it in action,” Senior Associate Justice Robert W. Clifford said of the court’s school visits before Wednesday’s session. “The appellate court can be a little dry and sometimes seem pretty removed from the public, so it’s a good opportunity to [see] what the court does.” Clifford was appointed in 1986 to the state’s high court by Gov. Joseph Brennan and is its longest-serving member. During his tenure on the court, he and his fellow justices most often have convened at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland.
Every effort is made to conduct the proceedings in schools as they would be conducted in a courtroom, Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley said Wednesday. She said the justices prepare for oral arguments the same way they would if arguments were held in a courtroom with just attorneys, law clerks and interested parties in the gallery: They read the written arguments submitted, the record from the lower courts, and the transcripts of hearings, trials and other proceedings that already have been held.
Sometimes in school settings, however, they frame their questions a bit differently.
“We do try to begin the questions with a bit more context and background,” Saufley said. “We also use less legal shorthand than we would if we had a roomful of lawyers.”
In Bangor, the court heard oral arguments in appeals in three different cases, two criminal cases out of Hancock County and an estate case out of Waldo County Probate Court. Mary Kellett, assistant district attorney for Hancock County, argued the two from her county. She noted that the justices seemed to pick cases to hear oral arguments on in schools that they ordinarily would only consider with written briefs.
On Wednesday, one of her cases concerned the amount of privacy a person in custody on suspicion of drunken driving should expect in a police station and when Miranda warnings should be given. More than half a dozen students flocked around her to ask questions during a break between arguments.
“They clearly listened,” Kellett said of the students’ questions. “They’re wanting to understand what the rules are and what their rights are.
“I think it’s very good,” she continued, “to give teenagers an idea about what lawyers and judges do. They see things on legal TV shows and they get a distorted concept about how the system works. I think this gives them a better understanding of how their legal system works.”
State Sen. Joseph Perry, D-Bangor, invited the court to hold a session at Bangor High in February when Saufley delivered her annual State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature.
“Working in the Legislature for the past 12 years, it is second nature for me to see the public at hearings and debates,” he said earlier this week. “Maine’s legislative process even provides the pubic with several ways to listen or watch debates live online.
“When I learned that there may be an opportunity for a handful of schools in our state to have a better opportunity to see Maine’s Law Court in action,” he continued, “I helped make arrangements for Bangor High School to be considered.”
During a break between sessions, Perry said he was surprised at how often the justices interrupted the attorneys as they argued their cases. Perry, who is Senate chairman of the Taxation Committee, said members of the panel do not interrupt speakers at legislative hearings except to tell them their allotted time is up.