FORT KENT, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court is on tour this week, and Tuesday’s appearance at the University of Maine at Fort Kent was standing room only when more than 800 St. John Valley high school and university students got a firsthand look at how Maine law evolves.
“How many times can citizens of Aroostook County see the supreme court in action?” Sen. John Martin asked in his introductory remarks. “What you see today is what you would see in Portland if you were sitting in the supreme court.”
The Eagle Lake Democrat is also assistant professor of political science at UMFK.
On tap at Tuesday’s session were arguments addressing an individual’s obligation to call 911 when someone is seriously injured, a discussion on the limits of law enforcement’s ability to search the contents of private motor vehicles, and a municipal shoreland zoning issue based in Madawaska.
“I think the students were really amazed at how interesting these issues really are,” Chief Justice Leigh Ingalls Saufley said after the justices had adjourned for the day. “These are issues that matter a lot to the individuals involved.”
Holding court in locations across the state allows the state’s judiciary to fulfill an important obligation, Saufley said.
“One of the most important things a democratic federal government built on the concepts of a republic can do is educate its citizens,” the chief justice said. “Government is the citizens, and we are part of that.”
Hearing arguments in UMFK’s auditorium on Tuesday, at Georges Valley High School in Thomaston today and at Fryeburg Academy on Thursday allows students to understand what the state’s Law Court does and how it does it, Saufley said.
“These are students who may grow up to be legislators or lawyers and will vote,” Saufley said. “At the same time, we get to see the state and the communities affected by our opinions.”
Students from Wisdom High School in St. Agatha attended all three of the arguments Tuesday as part of teacher John Woodward’s social studies and studies in law classes.
“I think it was interesting to see our court in action,” said Wisdom sophomore Meghan Guerrette, 15. “I had thought it would be more boring than it was, [and] I did not expect all the questions back and forth between the justices and lawyers.”
For Woodward, the lesson of the court’s St. John Valley appearance is lasting far longer than the single morning.
“We received copies of all the briefs argued today and came prepared with some basic knowledge about them,” Woodward said. “When the justices make their decisions we will receive that information for some follow-up discussion.”
For several of the students Tuesday’s arguments helped put the legal system into a more realistic perspective.
“It was very interesting and not like the ‘People’s Court’ on television,” said Fort Kent senior Davis Cyr, 17. “This was a really good opportunity for us to see how things really happen. If you just go by what is on TV you really have no idea how the system works.”
Fellow student Rebecca Martin, a 16-year-old junior in Fort Kent, agreed.
“This was a really good experience for our school,” she said. “We need opportunities like this to open our eyes to the way state government works.”
Unlike a traditional trial court appearance, in the Law Court arguments are based as much on what the laws are as what residents expect or want those laws to be.
Kevin St. Jarre, a Fort Kent social studies teacher, said that for many students, their familiarity with the laws and legal system often begins and ends with speeding tickets and other traffic-related infractions.
“For them to see the legal system in progress provides a connection for them,” he said.
St. Jarre pointed out that the students, who were initially skeptical about a morning spent listening to legal arguments, were ultimately the most disappointed in the fact that no final decisions were handed down Tuesday.
“A lot of them were bummed they didn’t get to find out who won today,” St. Jarre said.