Despite the proliferation of TV shows devoted to lawyers, the judicial branch of government is not well understood by the general public. And taxpayers regularly put courts at the bottom of the list for additional spending of public funds. It makes sense, since few people expect to go to court, and if they do find themselves there — divorce, speeding ticket or inheritance dispute — it’s rarely pleasant.
But as history shows, the judicial system holds the key to some critical decisions in public life. The Magna Carta of 1215, which guaranteed certain rights to English barons before their king, is seen as one of the most important documents of the last 1,000 years. The document established the right of habeas corpus, which is an essential component of modern criminal courts (and one which the outgoing presidential administration is accused of flouting). Fast-forward to U.S. Supreme Court cases such as Brown v. the Board of Education, Roe v. Wade and Bush v. Gore, and it’s easy to see the significance of the judiciary.
But understanding court proceedings is another matter. And that is why the Maine Supreme Judicial Court climbed down from the bench and ascended the steps of some Maine high schools. Three years ago the court began holding some of its fall session in high schools so students would have a front-row seat to see the process. Last year, court was in session in Hampden Academy; this year, Shead High School in Eastport and Bangor High School were on the fall tour.
Seeing and hearing the give and take between the seven justices and the attorneys may inspire students to seek careers in law. While that thought may inspire a wisecrack about the dubious need for more lawyers, consider this: When you face an OUI charge you believe is unjust, to whom do you turn? When you discover your neighbor’s septic system is half on your property, whom do you call? When you purchase that first house and want to be sure there are no liens on it, whom do you trust to get the answer?
Many lawyers today take a conciliatory approach to conflict resolution, realizing their clients will get off with a smaller bill if they can settle out of court. Some lawyers devote themselves to defending the poor, the aged, and children, making far less money than their private practice colleagues do.
And even if high students are not moved to go to law school, the substance of court is the art of argument, an essential part of a classic liberal education. Successful attorneys use facts and logic, they cite precedent and common sense, and they might throw in a rhetorical flourish or emotional appeal. The justices winnow out the superfluous and weigh those arguments against the heavy foundation of society — the law.
The court’s visits are a cost-efficient “field trip” for schools, and a noble sacrifice of convenience by the justices. Maybe the Legislature will consider a similar high school road trip.