Tolland High School hosts state Supreme Court

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Tolland - posted Fri., Nov. 1, 2013
Tolland High School juniors Meghan Noble (left) and Anne Trainor talk outside the 'courtroom' at THS on Oct. 29. Photo by Steve Smith.
Tolland High School juniors Meghan Noble (left) and Anne Trainor talk outside the 'courtroom' at THS on Oct. 29. Photo by Steve Smith.

Tolland High School's auditorium was literally the courtroom of the Connecticut Supreme Court on the morning of Oct. 29, as part of the court's “On Circuit” program. THS Principal Dominique Fox said that several teachers, including English and civics teachers, used the experience in a variety of ways in their classroom lessons.

The court heard two cases, pertaining to criminal and civil matters, and students from Bolton and East Catholic high schools were also invited. Attorneys had come to the school previously to give students background information about the cases and about court proceedings.

All court procedures were followed, and students and teachers had to be screened by a metal detector and obey all of the rules that spectators in a courtroom would follow, including remaining silent while the hearings are taking place.

The court first heard the case of The State of Connecticut v. Robert Eleck – a first-degree assault conviction from the Judicial District of Stamford-Norwalk. The matter at hand stemmed from an appeal of the case, and raised the question of whether Facebook messages could be admissible, given that the identification of the person writing them need not necessarily be from the person who owns the profile.

A witness in the original trial was asked if she had been in contact with the defendant since the incident. After indicating she had not, printouts of Facebook messages from her account to the defendant's were produced, and the woman claimed her account had been “hacked” into.

William Westcott argued for the defense, and Assistant State's Attorney Timothy Costello presented for the prosecution. The judges asked several questions including how Facebook messages differ from e-mails, and what happens when an account is left open, like at a public computer.

Costello argued that while there is room to consider ways another person could act as someone else, the most likely person to send a message via an account is the holder of that account.

Those issues seemed apt for the audience, and Fox said that afterward, students were informally asked how many of them have ever posted as someone else on social media.

“Pretty much every kid raised their hand,” Fox said.

In the second case, Roland Todd White v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., arguments were heard as to whether the automaker was to blame for a defect in a new vehicle (just a month old) that caused the engine to burst into flames. The crux of this hearing was whether the plaintiff had sufficiently used “malfunction theory” (that circumstantial evidence could prove a new product's defect was at fault) as part of its original claim. The defendant, at appellate court, had argued that the basis of the claim was based on the plaintiff's expert witness, a fire marshal, rather than satisfying the requirements of “malfunction theory,” and therefore an appeal based on that theory would not be allowed.

While the audience was not privy to some details, and decisions on the cases would not come to a later date, students were allowed to ask the attorneys questions after each case was heard. Some asked about precedent-setting cases that were mentioned in the hearings. Other questions were about the Latin terms used and clarification of how circumstantial evidence was sufficient for some decisions.

One student asked why the first case was being appealed, given that the defendant was already nearly done serving his sentence. The attorney answered that the difference could be whether probation is added after his client's release.

“I liked the fact that they were asking good questions,” Fox said. “I thought that was an indicator of the success of the program, and that kids were paying attention.”

Another thing that students noticed, Fox said, was that some of the attorneys seemed more prepared to answer the justices' questions than others. “The justices interject right away, so you've got to be prepared,” she said. “They kids were very interested in that – that the more prepared you are, the better attorney you are.”

Ivy Morrison, an 11th grade English teacher, said her classes recently finished a unit on rhetorical techniques. “I was hoping to hear evidence of these techniques in action,” Morrison said, adding that at least one of the attorneys provided a good example. “My students expressed surprise at the interaction between the justices and the attorneys,” Morrison said. “They did not expect such 'back and forth' discussions. They were also surprised that it took so long to cover so few points of contention.”

Sarah Goldman's Civics and U.S. History classes read the summaries of the two cases and then had a question and answer session in class.

“Students largely needed clarification on some of the legal terms involved, specifically 'Prima Facie,'” Goldman said. “Students also pondered the 'so what' question –What is the larger purpose of the cases and why do the individuals involved still care, years after the original trials and events?”

Fox said she was surprised at how big an operation it was to put together a court session, and that the experience was enjoyable, and a valuable experience for the students. “I thought it was great,” Fox said. “The kids were very well behaved. I thought it was a wonderful experience to see a real court session and how the appellate process worked. The amount of work that went into it beforehand was unbelievable. I was shocked at the number of marshals that were here, and how they brought in bomb-sniffing dogs.”

The “On Circuit” program has brought the Supreme Court to several locations, including schools and universities, since its inception in 1986. The stated purpose is to educate students and residents of the state about the role and responsibilities of the appellate system.


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