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Kentucky Supreme Court visit provides students with unique learning opportunity

September 12th, 2008

Noelle Rao, a second year student at the Brandeis School of Law, sat in the back row in the Allen Courtroom Sept. 11, waiting for the Kentucky Supreme Court to hear its first case of the morning.

Rao was among a large group of law students, high schoolers, law professors, media and others who descended on the University of Louisville’s Belknap campus to get a glimpse of the court justices in action.

The state’s court of last resort traditionally meets in the Capitol Building in Frankfort. Its stop at UofL Sept. 10 and 11 was part of an ongoing public education program that began in 1985. Justices traveled to Louisville to hear oral arguments that year, marking the first time the Supreme Court held a session outside of Frankfort.

At UofL, the justices heard several cases each morning, and in the afternoons held discussions with law students and question-and-answer sessions with the community.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to see the Supreme Court in action,” Rao said, adding that the law school provides a lot of opportunities for students that allow them to extend their understanding of the law and how it works in Kentucky.

The Supreme Court visit was important because it allowed students and members of the community to have exposure to the legal system at its highest level, said James Chen, dean of the Brandeis School of Law.

“We can do things in the community, but there are things the community can do in our midst,” Chen said. “We were really able to engage a lot of people.”

The school arranged a webcast for those who weren’t able to attend in person and accommodated visitors both in the courtroom and in overflow areas when the courtroom was full, he said. During some cases, as many as 20 students watched a video feed in an overflow room and others watched the webcast on their laptops in the building’s common areas.

Chen also said many high school students participated in the project, including some from Central High School, with which UofL participates in its Signature Partnership Initiative.

The cases the audience heard, including the appeal of Heath High School shooter Michael Carneal, are important in the legal community, he said.

“It’s important for students who are getting into this profession to see these cases,” Chen said.

Law professor Judith Fischer watched some of the cases and watched as her students asked questions during a question-and-answer session. The justices gave the students some background about legal analysis in response to questions about the role of precedent and how the court decides which cases to publish. A professor asked whether the justices had any advice about writing briefs, Fischer said. The justices told the professor to write simply, without legalese and to be scrupulously accurate.

“What the justices said reinforces what we tell the students in the classroom,” said Fischer, who teaches Basic Legal Skills, a course that has a heavy emphasis on writing.

Susan Duncan, an associate professor at the law school, watched part of the arguments with a group of eighth graders, and then watched a Web stream of the arguments with her own Basic Legal Skills class. Students, she said, saw the attorneys and judges demonstrate the lessons they discuss in class, like how to organize an oral argument and how to effectively answer questions from the justices.

“Most attorneys haven’t been able to see the Supreme Court live in action,” Duncan said.

The visit provided her students a unique opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t have been available. It would have proved too difficult to arrange a visit to Frankfort for everyone.

“I would never have been able to do this with my class as a whole,” she said. “Nothing compares to seeing the real thing, and this opportunity will help the students as they prepare for their own oral arguments next semester.”

Kim Albritton, a senior at Central High School and a participant in the law magnet program, watched the first of the court’s arguments on Wednesday morning.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to sit in on a real case and see the Supreme Court justices do their job,” said Albritton, who hopes to be an attorney herself one day.

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