Local students get their day in court, and learn a lesson
MALONE — A local class from Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES had an opportunity to experience what it’s like to present a real-life court case Monday with a real-life judge at the Franklin County Courthouse, and the best thing about it was a true learning experience as students participated in a moot court based on an actual trial currently being ruled upon by the Supreme Court involving the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
The class was the New Visions Law and Government class taught by Tracy Edwards, and since students who participated hail from the Malone, Brushton-Moira, Salmon River and St. Regis Falls school districts, they attend in the morning and go back to their home school districts in the afternoon.
The case that was argued involved the ICWA), which has a purpose “to protect the best interest of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum federal standards for the removal of Indian children and placement of such children in homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture,” according to the U.S. Department of Interior website.
The case involved a child that has been with an adopted family since the age of 2, and is now 9 years old, and the moot trail focused on the argument of whether or not he should be taken from the home of a white family he has grown up with or sent to the tribe of his heritage.
The students were split into two sides, the petitioners, or appellants, who were arguing on behalf of the U.S. Department of Interior in defense of the ICWA, and the respondents, who were arguing that ICWA violated the Constitution’s equal protection anti-commandeering clauses.
The Telegram visited the courtroom and spoke to Edwards just prior to the start of the moot court.
“The students have prepared arguments on either side, it’s a case as to whether or not the Indian Child Welfare Act violates two different clauses of the Constitution,” she explained. “It’s very involved, and very specific and the students had to learn quite a bit about anti-commandeering, equal protection, how to write an argument, and how to pose an argument. Today what they’re going to be doing is presenting those arguments and while they do that, they’re going to be interrupted at times by the judges to see how much they actually know about the case.”
According to Edwards, although it’s not an actual trial, the students have been geared to approach it very seriously – and a winning side will be selected, adding a real competitive nature to the courtroom.
“The interesting thing about this case though, is that the judges themselves don’t have to decide, they just have to decide who gave the most compelling argument, and in that regard, this is actually based on a real case that’s was brought in front of the Supreme Court in November, and they are currently in deliberations and is expected to be decided in the next couple of weeks,” she said, adding that the school has done trials like this before, but this is the first one since COVID.
“It is exciting, and they’re really nervous. They really practiced, some of them are too nervous to know if they’re excited or not,” she said.
One of the primary goals of the courtroom exercise is to focus on its educational value, according to Edwards.
“I think that no matter what they decide to do as a career, it helps teach them how to present an argument, how to stand up in front of pressure, and it’s a lot of pressure for them,” she said. “The arguments that they’re making are arguments that have been made by top legal minds and so for high school students to even take this on is pretty incredible and it’s a pretty big deal.”
The courtroom setting was just as it would be for a real case, and there was even a court officer on hand. Presiding over the case was Supreme Court judge, the Honorable John T. Ellis, and by his side were “co-judges” Todd Weber, who is also a BOCES consultant committee member, and Joy Gokey, Esq.
The following students are part of the class: Allyson Jock, of the Brushton-Moira Central School District; Carson Hanna, Alexis LaClair, Mackenzie Major, Luke Pearsall, and Barshier Robinson Jr. of the Malone Central School District; Joryan Adams, Ryan Bouchey, and Zayne Pavlick, of the Salmon River Central School District; and Rhea Work, of the St. Regis Falls Central School District.
The most valuable aspect of the moot court project for the students was the lessons learned and the experience gained by being forced to take center stage in a courtroom. Although most of the students admitted they were nervous, they recognized the value of the realistic setting. Some said that having gone to view live court cases involving Judge Ellis helped circumvent any anxiety.
As the trial got underway, one by one, each student went to the podium to present an argument pertaining to their side of the case, and Judge Ellis, Gokey and Weber periodically made inquiries during each student’s argument. At times, some of the students appeared on edge waiting for their turn to face the judge, however each were able to handle it well and prove their case knowledge.
Students were later asked about the experience and what they learned, along with the potential benefits it provides their career path – and some students had a similar perspectives on the experience.
“It was definitely was nerve racking to start but once I started talking it was a lot easier,” Ryan Bouchey said, adding that it gave him experience for when he enters law school. “I have seen court proceedings, but now I’m the one to present the case. The setting helped because with the court proceedings that we’ve watched I’ve seen you have to be confident with yourself and your answers. It’s definitely different from watching a court case and taking part in a court case.”
“Being there felt almost like a dream! It furthered me into the mindset that I was a real lawyer, and that this was the case of my life,” Zayne Pavlick said. “It gives you a sense of grandiose purpose, and a feeling that this is the end-all and be-all for you. Nerves didn’t really change much, it became a tunnel vision at that point. I learned that I’m better at thinking on my feet than I previously thought. I assumed I would freeze up and forget everything, but I was able to maintain composure.”
“It was scary at first, but I started to get more comfortable once I started talking during the court,” Carson Hanna said. “I was able to focus by only focusing on the judges and what they were asking me. Even though there were more people there, I acted as though it was only the judges and I, so that I could be confident in my answers and stay true to my points.
“I learned that it is a lot of work and research before you even go into the courtroom. I learned that it is very important to know what the other side is going to be arguing, so you can enter your arguments,” he added. “I learned that it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, since I knew what I was talking about. This will benefit me by giving me experience as to what court is like. I also have an understanding of all the preparation that is needed ahead of a court case.”
“It was super nerve wracking at first but as time went on and more and more people kept talking it got easier. Also, knowing Judge Ellis from previous encounters made it a little easier,” Allyson Jock said. “Being familiar with the courtroom from being in there before to watch previous court proceedings definitely helped me. When I did get nervous I just looked down at my paper and repeated answers to questions that I practiced in my head or I would stare at the ceiling for a few seconds.”
I learned that you can never fully prepare yourself for court proceedings because once you walk through the doors of the courtroom it will all end up getting changed, she added. “I think that being able to practice this so early on will help with future moot court proceedings that we may have to do in law school. Also, it kind of just helped my fear of public speaking in general with speaking in front of people that were important.”
“Doing this project in a real courtroom setting was very eye opening to what it is really like to be a lawyer,” Alexis LaClair said. “The setting helped because I had all of my friends around and I had a podium in front of me. When I got too nervous I would just look down at my papers and pretend like I was just reading to myself. I learned that court proceedings are very different than you would anticipate them to be. Once the judges start asking you questions you realize that they are totally different than the ones that you prepared for.”
“It made it much more fun and easier to have to try to argue. It felt like you were arguing for a real reason opposed to a childish dispute,” Luke Pearsall said. “Being in a real court arguing in front of real judges allowed me to feel very serious and much more competitive. In regards to being nervous I was too filled with excitement by actually arguing in court to feel nervous. Being put on the spot with questions like we all were will definitely help being able to think on our feet and formulate a well articulated argument in support of our position, which will obviously be very beneficial to our futures.”
“It was very nerve wracking, but having Judge Ellis as our judge also helped because we’ve met and have had conversations with him prior to moot court,” Mackenzie Major said. “Doing this project in a real courtroom setting was very helpful due to the fact that we have been in the same courtroom multiple times to watch cases. It allowed us to be familiar with where we were expected to be and gave us an idea of what are surroundings would be like. I was familiar with the setting so it allowed me to be comfortable at where I was. I learned to not lock my knees and that as long as you’re calm then you’ll be just fine and it’s okay to be nervous. What I learned about myself is that I can overcome being extremely nervous.”
“I really wasn’t able to focus while being nervous, but I’m glad I looked like I could, Rhea Work said. “I became a better public speaker. It was scary, but fun.”
“I was nervous in the beginning, but once I stood up and started talking with the judges I felt normal,” Joryan Adams said. “I learned how difficult it really is to prepare yourself for court proceedings. It is almost like you have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I think we all did an amazing job. Each team put up good arguments and spoke well, which in the end led the judges to be split on what side they were on.”
The students weren’t the only ones the enjoyed being engaged in a courtroom learning environment, as Judge Ellis, who has been a “doing it for quite a few years,” said the moot court is a good thing for everyone involved.
“That’s a good day. I like having the kids there and like asking questions and having them learn that way. I’m happy to try to help them if they’re interested in law,” he told the Telegram, adding that he was glad to be part of their learning experience. “I think the biggest takeaway is for them just learning the process of it. When you look at it on TV, you get a Hollywood version as far as how courts should work and the reality of it is always different. I think this gives them a glimpse of how courts really work and handle things.
“I just like the kids, I like talking to them and finding out what they’re going to do with their lives. I always try to give them perspective, life is all about following through on a plan. As you as you don’t give up and keep working hard, you’re going to get there,” he added. “They’ve got a lot of kids who are going off to college, but there are a lot of kids who plan to become military members and getting into the work force. I don’t think that’s bad for them either, whatever decision they make, you just have to commit to your plan and follow through.”
Judge Ellis explained he had a purpose for each question he posed to the students during the trial, and was sympathetic to their anxiety in the moment.
“I tried to ask each one a question and let them show me what they’ve learned because they spent a lot of time getting ready for this. I knew they were nervous, but no one was going to yell at them, you listen to their answer and use a little gentle humor here and there, and I think they all relaxed and enjoyed the argument,” he said.
He also appreciated the local connection to the case with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe within close proximity and the importance of the ICWA case.
“It was a good crossover case, the Indian Child Welfare Act has been around for a while,” he said. “I just think that people’s awareness of the Indian Child Welfare Act just increases the more we talk about it and the more cases that are before the courts. As long as the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t overrule and say the ICWA is unconstitutional, I think they would benefit just from the knowledge of what the ICWA is trying to do.”
The most difficult part for Judge Ellis was picking the winner of the trial.
“It was really tough to pick one of those teams over the other because they both did a great job. In the end, I had the toughest questions for the appellants because the facts didn’t really line up for them, so they had harder questions,” he said. “I liked that at least three of their team members held fast to their argument and didn’t give up on their argument just because I was asking them some tough questions. I think ultimately that’s what pushed the appellant’s side over the edge to win.”
“The respondents had an easier argument just because factually the child had been with their proposed adoptive parents more than nine years, and at the time the case was started, he had already been adopted,” he said, adding that he truly enjoys having the class be part of a courtroom scene.
“I love it. I love New Visions, and Tracy Edwards does a great job of trying to bring the kids in, and gives them just a taste of the legal world. I’m happy to do it, I like having them there,” he said.
And for the students, the courtroom experience ultimately left many of them with a boost of self-confidence.
“This experience will benefit me in real life by having that knowledge and just the experience in general. Having the opportunity to say that I’ve been able to participate in this project will allow me to be more confident, more motivated and competitive,” Mackenzie Major said.
“I think this gives an example of a high-stress situation, as well as tests our own limits and willpower,” Zayne Pavlick concluded.