Angie Pancost found out in person what it’s like to argue a case in the courtroom, and she didn’t even have to leave school.
Pancost, who would like to study law, and her senior classmates observed oral arguments in two cases Wednesday as part of the Colorado Judicial Branch’s Courts in the Community, an outreach program the Colorado Supreme Court and Court of Appeals started in 1986.
The auditorium at Windsor High School was turned into a real-life courtroom as seniors from the high school’s government classes and members of the public were able to watch the Colorado Court of Appeals hear oral arguments. They weren’t mock proceedings, and the judges will issue opinions on the two cases in the next couple of weeks.
Pancost, 17, said the program was helpful.
“I’m looking to go into a law career, and so it was nice being able to see this and kind of what it would be like to either be a lawyer and maybe make it up to a judge position one day,” Pancost said. “This is something that we don’t really get to see. It’s nice that it was through the school, and it wasn’t just something that we had to come do in our own spare time.”
Jon Sarché, public information coordinator for the Colorado Judicial Branch, said the Courts in the Community program was developed to give Colorado high school students a firsthand experience of how the judicial system works. Sarché said the Court of Appeals travels to four schools each year, and the Supreme Court goes to two.
“I think this was a really good session,” Sarché said. “I think they did get a lot out of it. You can really tell by the kinds of questions they asked afterward. That shows the good preparation and how much interest they took in it.”
Windsor High School principal Michelle Scallon said it was an amazing experience for the kids, community and staff.
“I think it’s a great learning experience because it’s a real-life case,” Scallon said. “There’s great learning going on.”
Once the cases were over, the students were allowed to ask questions to the attorneys who argued the cases and to the four judges who presided over the cases.
“This summer, I actually went and shadowed a judge in Greeley, and it was really interesting to see that, but it was also cool that they brought it to us,” Pancost said.
The students asked the attorneys many questions about law and about the two cases, one involving two plaintiffs in a car crash and the other involving a paranoid schizophrenic man who stalked his victim. They also asked the judges questions about the legal system.
“I think a lot of us were interested in it, especially since we are in government, and we’re learning about this stuff,” Pancost said.
Windsor-Severance Re-4 School District superintendent Karen Trusler said it was a great learning experience for the students.
“Students learn about our democracy beginning in kindergarten. However the judicial system is studied in depth at the high school level,” Trusler said. “To read, study and discuss the court system is how nearly all students learn about the U.S. courts. So, for our students to see and hear arguments in an actual case is one of the most valuable learning experiences they will encounter.”
Trusler said she hoped the students will gain an appreciation of how the democratic society works and solves disputes.
“I would not be surprised if after this opportunity, we have students who will want to pursue a career in the legal field,” Trusler said. “Our community is most fortunate to have this opportunity and one of our local attorneys, Kim Schutt, spearheaded the efforts to bring this outreach program to Windsor.”
Schutt, a civil law attorney who practices out of Windsor and Fort Collins, said most people don’t have an opportunity to see court cases at the appellate level.
“This doesn’t get to be publicized as much. It’s a different spin on how the legal system works and ideas of fairness and what the law should be in a particular case,” Schutt said. “Hopefully, they walked away having a different perspective of the legal system and a new respect for it. I hope that perhaps just one of them who may be curious about a career in the law got a little spark from what they heard and observed. ”
Schutt said she’s been involved in the Courts in the Community program a few times.
“When the court came up to Poudre High School about four years, I served in the capacity that I did this time where I worked with another attorney to help train the teachers, go into the classrooms and talk to students and answer their questions so that they’d be prepared for what’s going to happen,” Schutt said. “Back in April, I was one of the attorneys arguing one of my cases at a high school down in Denver. It was through a conversation with Jon Sarché after that proceeding and I just said, ‘Hey, this is such a great program I would love to see it come up to Windsor sometime.’ We got Judge (James) Hartmann involved. I was pleased that our students had that opportunity.”
Hartmann, the 19th Judicial District Chief Judge and a graduate of Windsor High School, said the program is a great learning opportunity for the students to actually see one of the branches of government operated in their school.
“We have a number of young people here who I have no doubt will be future lawyers, judges and leaders in our community,” Hartmann said. “To reach them at an early age like this is so important.”
Social sciences teaches Phil Weiser said the students were excited about the program.
“They’ve learned about the judicial branch, the judicial system, read the case briefs and discussed them,” Weiser said. “They’re very lucky to get this experience. (Social studies teacher) Carol Ward should be given credit to making this happen.”
Baylee Sandquist, 17, said it was special to be the first government class in Windsor to have the privilege of being a part of Courts in the Community.
“It was useful, especially to see it. Hands-on experience is always nice,” Sandquist said. “I thought it was really interesting how they set it up very similar to a courtroom. We actually got to be involved by standing up and sitting down and seeing how the courtroom actually works.”
Cosme Martinez, 17, said it was really interesting watching the court cases.
“The one I thought was really interesting was the second case with the insane guy,” Martinez said.
Martinez also liked the Q&A sessions with the attorneys and judges.
“It gave us more of that adult feeling, and afterward we were able to ask questions and the judges were a lot more down to earth,” Martinez said. “They were laughing, and it was cool.”