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ON THE LAW

Magnet School Attracts a Real Court Session

Appeals court justices hold a half-day session at the school so that budding lawyers -- and judges -- can see the legal system in action.

November 21, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

Most students at the Law and Public Service Magnet at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles had never met a justice of the California Court of Appeal.

Even though one judge graduated from their school.

Presiding Justice Candace D. Cooper returned to her alma mater in the Crenshaw district earlier last month to show students what it's really like to be a judge and a lawyer.

She and her colleagues in Division 8 of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles held a half-day court session in the magnet school's mock courtroom.

"We thought it would be good for you and good for us to come down here," Cooper told students at the start of the session.

It was the first time that an appellate court panel in Los Angeles had packed up its briefing books and staff and convened at a high school to hear oral arguments in pending cases. More often, students are invited to visit courthouses to watch the proceedings.

Next month, the California Supreme Court will convene in San Jose, where high school students will fill the courtroom while hundreds more watch a live broadcast of the court's oral arguments in their classrooms.

Both programs are part of a statewide effort to educate the public about the justice system.

"Interaction with a judge can only help everybody," said Associate Justice Laurence D. Rubin of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, who planned the Dorsey event. "It makes us less secretive, less unknown."

Other outreach efforts in Los Angeles include educational sessions for high school teachers, religious leaders and representatives of foreign nations.

Consular officials of 40 countries, including Pakistan and the People's Republic of China, spent a full day at Los Angeles County Superior Court recently, touring the courthouse and meeting with judges to learn more about the judicial system.

The Dorsey court session made a definite impression on students.

"It gave me something to think about," said Carla Umana, 16, who attends the law magnet school. "I thought about law, but I didn't think about being a judge or a lawyer."

Juan Preciado, 16, said he was inspired, knowing that Cooper had graduated from his school. "It actually, like, motivates you," he said. "It opens your horizons."

The students got the real deal: As they entered the building, their bags were searched and they were scanned with a hand-held metal detector.

Then they watched as real lawyers argued real issues.

"We picked five cases we thought would interest the students -- nothing too violent, nothing too boring," Rubin said.

School officials checked to make sure the criminal cases did not involve any of their students, as defendant, victim or witness.

The justices -- Cooper, Rubin, Paul Boland and Madeleine Flier -- put on their robes in school coordinator Keith H. Funk's office before walking down the hallway and into the courtroom. They sat on the bench under the school seal and squeezed into seats usually reserved for judge, witness and clerk in the mock courtroom.

There were some interesting issues on the docket to consider: Can the family of a woman who died while scuba diving sue her "dive buddy" for not sharing his oxygen with her? Can a fired high school coach sue the father of one of his players for libel?

When the arguments turned to whether one company can sue a competitor over a magazine advertisement that challenged the safety of certain types of dumbbells, a few students found it difficult to keep their eyes open.

All it took was a nudge from a uniformed California Highway Patrol officer to refocus their attention.

"It was great that they brought actual court cases and didn't stage it," said student Marc Vestil, 17, who had studied the issues before the hearings.

During a question-and-answer period with the justices, Vestil was careful not to ask them about case specifics, which he knows judges are ethically barred from discussing.

Yet he was curious about their thinking on the scuba diving case, which a trial court judge had thrown out of court. Did they ever have trouble separating issues of morality from legality? he asked.

"In most cases, the law is moral," Cooper answered.

"We are duty-bound to follow case law," Rubin added.

"A lot of times, we may disagree with the law, but we are bound by it," Boland concluded.

The session was also instructive for the attorneys on hand to argue their cases.

They sat up in their seats in the mock courtroom's jury box and stretched forward to listen when a student asked the justices, "When do you actually make the decision?"

"We'll issue a written opinion within 90 days of the case," Cooper responded.

Then Boland held up a binder and shared a well-known court secret with the students: "We have a draft of the decision in the book right now."

"Can we get a peek?" one of lawyers shouted playfully.

All the lawyers had volunteered to take part in the school session.

"I thought it would be kind of fun," attorney Verna Wefald said. "I think it's a great idea."

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