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Local Students Get a Briefing on State Appellate System

Education: Twenty-one Camarillo High teens hear lawyers argue a case, meet judges and tour courthouse as part of a one-of-a-kind program.


VENTURA — Standing in his spacious court chambers, Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert loosened his tie and launched into an intellectual discussion of search and seizure laws.

"What do you think?" he asked. It was the type of question typically posed to a law clerk or fellow jurist.

But Gilbert was looking for an answer from a different source Thursday--a group of high school seniors who participated in a one-of-a-kind program aimed at educating students on the California appellate system.

Twenty-one students from Camarillo High School spent the afternoon immersed in a little-understood area of the law. They listened as lawyers argued a real-life case in which a man is appealing his felony assault conviction, then they quizzed the attorneys about the case during a question-and-answer session.

Later, the teens toured the courthouse in downtown Ventura and talked at length with the justices who preside over Division Six of the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

"What we are doing is outreach," said Gilbert, who leads the appellate division that covers Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. "We try not to take ourselves too seriously," he said of the court's four justices, "but we take our work seriously."

Many of the students who participated in the program said they gained a deeper understanding of how the appeals process works.

"I thought I knew," said 18-year-old Hillary Rieder. "It's just so different than reading about it in a book."

And that's the goal.

"Anything that demystifies what we do is good," Justice Steven Perren said, "because the law should never be a mystery."

For five years Ventura's appellate courthouse has opened its doors at least twice a year to high school government and criminal justice classes to allow students to see firsthand how the system works.

In reality, there's not much to see.

Appellate courts don't hear live testimony. They don't retry cases. And, with the exception of brief oral arguments held once a month, such as on Thursday, they don't entertain much dialogue on the legal issues in dispute.

Almost all the legal wrestling, in fact, occurs on paper--with lawyers filing written briefs and justices issuing written rulings.

As a result, the court's educational program tries to pull students into the process by providing teens with copies of briefs on a case, and later with the written ruling so they can discuss it further in class.

So far, students at Camarillo High School, Ventura College and Villanova Preparatory School in Ojai have participated in the program.

Court officials are considering whether to expand the outreach program to other high schools.

For now, Camarillo High teacher Jim Steele has worked with the court to fold its outreach program into the curriculum for his field-study class on law and criminal justice.

"It's a great program," Steele said. "I don't think there are very many high school students in California--let alone the nation--who get to do what we are getting to do."

As part of his curriculum, Steele takes his students--many of whom want to pursue careers in law or law enforcement--on field trips to the Superior Court, the county's crime lab and its three jail facilities.

But the appellate program is unique, he said, because the students get to thoroughly examine an actual case and follow its outcome.

"I can't think of a better way for students to learn than hands-on," Steele said. "What you read in textbooks is one thing--what you see in real life in another."

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