Originally created 02/08/02

High court convenes for high schoolers



JESUP, Ga. - Seeing the Georgia Supreme Court in action is "way better," some Wayne County High School students said, than watching a fictionalized television series about the U.S. Supreme Court.

"That was pretty cool. It was the neatest thing in the world," said Daniel Larson, 17, after he and his 11th-grade classmates sat in this week as state Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments from attorneys in a Fulton County murder case.

The court convened in the historic Wayne County Courthouse Tuesday after accepting the invitation from the county bar association to visit the rural south Georgia community. It was the first time the Supreme Court has met in the city, according to county and court officials.

Chief Justice Norman S. Fletcher said the court periodically presides in different sites around the state.

"This is the seventh time in 12 years that we've heard cases outside of Atlanta," Justice Fletcher said.Such road trips, Justice Fletcher said, help make the judicial system more accessible to people throughout the state and give the justices a chance to get out into the communities. Justice Fletcher said he and other justices especially liked sharing the history of the court and its function with young people.

Justice Fletcher noted that the proceedings are a little less formal when the court is on the road.

"When we go out of town, we like to give a little history of the court for the people who are attending ..." Justice Fletcher said.

At the end of the proceedings, the court answers questions and provides insight on how the process works. About 380 high school juniors sat in the audience as the Supreme Court listened to arguments in two unrelated cases - the Fulton County murder conviction appeal and a Glynn County case focusing on the constitutional right to have an attorney during trial.

Assistant Principal Denise Voyles said the students recently have been studying government, civics, American history and world history. The role of the Supreme Court is an essential component in those lessons, she said.

"This gives them a chance to see the judicial process in action," Ms. Voyles said. "They can see that the process doesn't stop with a conviction, that people can appeal and plead their case to a high court."

After the arguments concluded, students gave high marks to attorneys on both sides of the case. Some also compared the justices' questioning to that of classroom quizzes from their teachers.

"I thought it was very interesting, but I didn't quite get all of the legal stuff that they were talking about," said Sarah Klingler, 17, as she left the courtroom.

Earlier, the chief justice told the students that Supreme Court proceedings generally are "somewhat drier than a good jury trial hearing."

Nonetheless, students caught a glimpse of courtroom drama as defense attorney Dwight L. Thomas of Atlanta and Assistant District Attorney Bettianne C. Hart, also of Atlanta, argued about whether a man should receive a new trial in a 1996 double slaying case.

Mr. Thomas, his voice rising with emotion at times, said his client was unjustly convicted because the judge had erred by allowing jurors to listen to hearsay testimony, and not listening in on bench conferences in the trial.

But Ms. Hart, a former Superior Court judge in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, countered that the Supreme Court allows trial judges leeway in conducting trials, and that the evidence clearly showed the man was guilty of the killings.

Daniel Larson and other students said they picked up a few pointers from the attorneys.

"It gave me a few ideas for things I can try," said Daniel, a member of the school's mock trial team. "But the best thing about all this is that they came here. The Supreme Court picked Jesup out of all the cities in the state to hold court."