War of the words
VAIL — A couple hundred Battle Mountain students watched and listened carefully as attorneys waged war before the three-judge panel from the Colorado Courts of Appeals.
And what did they learn in school that day?
That they can get there from here, which is exactly what Phil Qualman, Battle Mountain’s principal, was hoping for when he asked the judges to visit.
It’s part of the Colorado Judicial Branch’s Courts in the Community program, designed to demonstrate how disputes are settled in a democratic society.
The Court of Appeals heard honest-to-eloquence oral arguments on two cases of great potential importance — one a free speech case and the other a racial profiling case involving a potential juror, an African American, who claims she was rejected from the jury because of her race.
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The Court of Appeals takes its show on the road six times a year, and Qualman asked them to visit several years ago. On Tuesday, Battle Mountain’s number came up.
“Pay attention to the way the questions and answers are phrased. This is the kind of excellence we’re striving for,” Qualman said as he introduced the attorneys and judges.
Social studies and history classes did a few lessons leading up to Tuesday’s arguments, so the students would understand what was happening.
They were real cases argued before real judges with real lives hanging in the balance.
“It’s not a mock trial,” said Judge Robert D. Hawthorne, one of the three judges.
Making their case
Like all cases, these two cases started in trial courts. The case was heard and a verdict was rendered. At least one of the two sides disagreed with the decision and appealed parts of it, asking the Court of Appeals to see things their way.
Battle Mountain’s auditorium was transformed into a courtroom. There was a traffic light looking thing in the middle of the room. As long as it was green the attorneys were good to go. When it turned yellow, it was time to hit the gas. When it was red, it was time to stop.
Attorneys had 15 minutes to present their case.
However, while they were making their case the three judges grilled the attorneys with questions designed to poke holes in their positions and arguments.
“It was fascinating to see how court actually works, instead of how it’s depicted on television,” said Anna Skelton.
In one case, Thomas E. Cave v. Anne McGihon, Cave disagreed with an administrative law judge who ruled that Cave failed to provide proof that former legislator Anne McGihon, now a lobbyist, allowed her name to be used as a co-host for an invitation to a Democratic fundraiser. McGihon said she did no such thing, and while her name had appeared on the invitation, she said she didn’t put it there and quickly demanded that it be removed.
The administrative law judge ruled that Cave’s evidence was inconclusive.
“With all our technology and all the access it provides, in all the months the trial lasted and all the evidence that was presented, none of it was direct physical evidence,” said Aimee Brandt, one of the Battle Mountain students who absorbed the proceedings.
McGihon’s attorney, Mark G. Grueskin, argued that Cave’s case hinges on a conservative blog posting and that the judge threw it out as evidence because its political innuendo is “problematic.”
“As the court knows numerous tools available to attorneys to buttress their case. What did Mr. Cave do? Not a thing,” Grueskin argued.
During the Q-and-A, Battle Mountain student Robert Dandy grilled the attorneys and judges with several penetrating questions and came away with this astute observation.
“It’s important that you keep as little physical evidence of your actions as possible,” Dandy said.
Hawthorne was joined by Judge Laurie A. Booras and Judge Terry Fox on Tuesday’s panel.
Grueskin likened doing a trial to going to war.
“Figure out what you need to prove to win your battles and what you need to do to prove it,” Grueskin told the students.
Some of the legal process is convoluted, some isn’t, Grueskin said.
“When a court of appeals judge tells you, ‘This is what I want to know,’ you say, ‘This is what I want to tell you.’”
Grueskin argued that the Cave v. McGihon case could have critical First Amendment implications.
“Justice Roberts wrote in the Citizens United case. ‘Where the First Amendment is implicated, the tie goes to the speaker and not the censor,’” Grueskin said.
Profiling or prejudging?
In the potential racial profiling case, prosecutors in a robbery case against Adrian Deon Larkins rejected a potential juror. She’s African American and sued, saying she was rejected because of her race.
Prosecutors disagreed, pointing out that while potential jurors were being questioned she said too many African Americans were being prosecuted and that her husband had dealt with racial slurs, but that she could be impartial.
Prosecutors used one of their automatic rejections to excuse the woman from the pool of potential jurors. The prosecution argued its dismissal was race-neutral because the juror had expressed a race-based bias.
Eventually, the jury acquitted Larkins of the robbery charges. That means all 12 jurors had to agree that Larkins was innocent.
Lynn Noesner, a public defender who worked the Larkins case, told the students that the peremptory challenges are important.
“The goal is to seat a jury that can be fair,” she said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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