SCHS: About the Society — Rosette Detail

High Praise for “Hometowns” Indianapolis

Source: The Indiana Citizen

Author: Marilyn Odendahl

After introducing himself and welcoming the students to his courtroom, U.S. Magistrate Judge Tim Baker of the Southern District of Indiana pulled a copy of the Constitution from his pocket and began reviewing Article III, which established the federal judiciary.

“My favorite Article,” Baker said.

This week, Article III is the focus – and possibly the favorite – of two dozen Indianapolis high school students participating in “The Supreme Court and My Hometown” program at the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Indianapolis. Developed and presented by the U.S. Supreme Court Historical Society, the immersive civics education program teaches the students about the federal court system by placing them among judges and lawyers and having them study a case that originated in their community and eventually reached the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices in Washington, D.C.

Nicole Maffei, director of civic education at the historical society, developed the curriculum and in presenting this program in St. Louis and Nashville, has seen the students gain a better understanding of the courts. Through the program, she said, students change their perception from viewing courthouses as a place people visit on their worst day to seeing the courthouses as part of their communities.

“It’s not a scary place anymore,” Maffei said. “It’s a place where they understand what’s happening. They’ve talked to federal judges. They’ve talked to United States attorneys and federal defenders and all of those different people, so it becomes a place that they’re more comfortable in and that they understand what’s happening behind closed doors.”

Baker, who has served as a magistrate judge for 23 years, entered his courtroom with a friendly “Hello everybody” to greet the students. As he gave an overview of the federal courts, he stood in front of his bench while surrounded by the students who filled the jury box, clustered around the attorneys’ tables and even perched on the witness stand.

The conversation covered the broad topics of federalism and anti-federalism, the Supremacy Clause and the Bill of Rights, and the confirmation process for federal judges as well as the types of cases they hear. Baker talked about some of the cases currently in his court, why he decided to go to law school and the value of civics education.

“Take time to read the Constitution,” Baker told the students. “(There are) lots of good things in there we take for granted, which is too bad and why civics education is so important.”

A ‘much more robust’ civics program

The Southern Indiana District Court is one of the first federal courts to host the Supreme Court program. Although the court has one of the heaviest caseloads of any federal district court in the country, Mary Giorgio, public outreach coordinator for the Southern Indiana court, said the judges, attorneys and staff still make time, throughout the year, to welcome school field trips, hold mock trials, and have students meet the judges and observe a proceeding.

Usually, the civics education programming offered by the Southern Indiana District lasts a couple of hours or a day at the most, because the court has to do its main job of keeping its docket moving, Giorgio said. However, the Supreme Court program came with critical support that enabled the court to give the students a richer experience without having to overtax its resources.

“This was a great fit, for us because they’ve developed all of the content and they provided the educator who’s going to come to Indianapolis and actually present the program,” Giorgio said. “That really allows us to expand the court’s outreach goals by being able to provide this more in-depth experience for high school to learn about, and experience the federal court system, in just a much more robust way than we’ve been able to do before.”

The program is free for the students, all of whom went through an application process to be selected to participate. Giorgio said she was initially concerned that many high school students would be away on summer vacations with their families and not be able to attend week-long camp, but the number of applications exceeded expectations and the students in the program have a wide variety of interests.

Maffei has been in Indianapolis this week, helping local guest lecturers, like Baker, teach about the Constitution, the court system and the legal process while also keeping the students organized and engaged.

As the anchor to all they are learning about the courts and the judicial process, the students are delving into a First Amendment case that originated during a protest against the Vietnam War on the Bloomington campus of Indiana University. The case, Hess v. Indiana, started in state courts but then rose to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the 1973 decision established the precedent that speech which does not ignite immediate action is protected by the Constitution.

To supplement their legal research, the students had a full schedule of different activities. The plans included a visit to the Indiana Supreme Court in the Statehouse and a talk with Indiana Justice Geoffrey Slaughter. Also, the students were to tour the Indiana War Memorial Museum with extra time spent at the Vietnam exhibit, and back at the federal courthouse, they were to observe a sentencing presided over by Chief Judge Tanya Walton Pratt.

Throughout the week, the students were to meet and learn from Southern Indiana District judges and the attorneys who practice in federal court, including the U.S. attorney for the Southern Indiana District Zachary Myers.

“I hope they get a better and a realistic understanding of what happens in the federal court system and how it works,” Giorgio said. “And that they’re able to see for themselves what happens in federal court and how everyone works together to make a proceeding take place successfully.”

Culminating with a capstone project

Following the session with Baker, the students walked down one flight of stairs and wound their way into a jury room. They pulled the comfortable cushioned chairs to the table and listened while Ken Falk, legal director at the ACLU of Indiana, dissected the First Amendment and reviewed key Supreme Court cases that have defined free speech.

Falk shared with them that after more than 40 years of practicing law, he remains optimistic, because every time he walks into a courtroom, he knows his clients, regardless of how much money they have or what personal beliefs they hold, are equal under the law.

“I never had the feeling that my clients were being given any less protection,” Falk said.

During a break, one student chatted with Falk about mock trial and two others approached with a question about the legal concept of content neutral speech.

As their capstone project, the students will create a wall display detailing the history of and constitutional issues presented in Hess v. Indiana. Giorgio said the display will then be exhibited in the Federal Court Learning Center inside the Indianapolis federal courthouse where other students can view it and learn how their hometown contributed to U.S. Supreme Court history.