Unless you go to law school to become a lawyer, few people have the opportunity to see or interact with Alabama’s judicial system. But the decisions that are made in court affect the policies of the state and everyone’s daily life.
This is a point one of the justices made on November 6 at the 2014 Alabama Appellate Courts Oral Arguments, hosted by Samford University Cumberland School of Law and the Birmingham Bar Foundation, when students are invited to observe the judicial process in action. This year, more than 500 students from 15 Birmingham-area high schools and students from UAB and our local law schools got a glimpse behind the curtain to gain a better understanding of the state’s judicial branch. The court heard two real cases – Bynam v. City of Oneonta, et al (an Alabama Supreme Court case) and Houston v. City of Bessemer (an Alabama Court of Civil Appeals case).
For high school students, this event actually starts in the classroom before the oral arguments begin. Classes that choose to participate are provided with materials and classroom training for teachers and students. This involves volunteer attorneys and judges visiting the classrooms to go over a presentation about the structure of the judicial branch and the cases the courts will hear on the day of the event. We show them photos of the judges and talk about the layout of the court so students will understand what they are seeing. For example, the judges sit based on seniority, starting in the middle and working their way out. Without previous knowledge, most people probably wouldn’t understand the significance of the seating arrangement. We also provide a preview of the two cases that will be argued. Students are able to ask questions in advance and be prepared for what’s going to happen in court.
This year, we enjoyed seeing that students were very engaged with the material. Several teachers told us that this is their favorite field trip event of the school year. And the timing is excellent. Right now many government and history classes are studying the structure of the government and separation of powers between the legislature and the court system – which ties in perfectly with seeing the court in action. One of the cases that was argued at the event involved an issue regarding the separation of powers between the court and the legislature, so getting to see how it plays out in the real world is an enriching experience that dovetails with what students are learning in the classroom.
Once the oral arguments have been heard, the students are interested and eager to know where the cases go from there. We always try to follow up and let them know the outcome as soon as we can.
As a member of the Birmingham Bar Foundation Board of Directors, it is a pleasure for me to be involved in planning the event. It’s a great opportunity for students to see the Alabama Supreme Court and the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals at work.