Our Courts Looks to Reach Future Voters

New program for high school students teaches about state’s judge selections

Most high school students aren’t old enough to vote. But a new Colorado program from Our Courts is based on the understanding that they’ll reach voting age soon, and it’s important to engage them early. The program seeks to educate high school students about Colorado’s judge appointment process.

Our Courts is a collaboration between the Colorado Judicial Institute and the Colorado Bar Association. Its expansion into schools is a departure from its original intent. For several years it only focused on education for adults. 

But a few years ago, the organizers decided to test one of Our Courts’ existing presentations about the “life of a criminal case” with high school students, starting with the Denver School of Science of Technology. Colorado Supreme Court Justice Richard Gabriel said students responded well to the presentation, so Our Courts developed a program specifically for them.

Gabriel chairs the Our Courts executive committee. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Steven Bernard and CBA director of public legal education Carolyn Gravit have also been heavily involved in spearheading the high school program.

“It occurred to me we [were] missing an audience,” Gabriel said.

How it Works

In the program, three students play the role of applicants to a trial judge position, and the rest of the class splits into groups to act as nominating commissioners. The program has created three fictitious applicant characters with different backgrounds, and before the interviews, the teachers discuss with their students what they think makes a good judge. The applications and interviews are simplified versions of the process for real judge candidates.

Two or three judges and attorneys lead each presentation. They introduce themselves by talking for a few minutes about their backgrounds, and help the students develop interview questions. Gabriel said they also discuss topics such as whether judicial diversity is important, and how judges remain neutral by avoiding discussing politics and recusing themselves from cases when necessary.

After deliberating, the student nominating commissions each pick whom they believe is the best candidate and discuss why. Despite the fact that most students don’t have a lot of familiarity with the judicial system before they participate in the program, Gabriel said both the mock applicants and commission members get quite creative and insightful with the process.

“My favorite question that I ever heard a student ask — and this came out of the clear blue sky, we didn’t [prompt] them — was, ‘Is there a difference between fairness and justice?’” Bernard also noticed the students’ sensitivity to these types of “very subtle questions we judges wrestle with all the time,” he said.

Gabriel added another student, who played an applicant, came up with a background story of coming from a family of 17 children and learning to negotiate through fighting for the last slice of pizza on Friday nights.

The Rollout

Our Courts has presented the program to about 20 social studies and civics classes of juniors and seniors so far. Gravit said she hopes to bring the program to about 25 to 30 classes each year across Colorado, and the organizers will spend the next few weeks getting classes to commit to participating during the new school year. 

The program hasn’t gotten much traction yet outside the Denver metro area. But Gravit said the CBA’s current president, Kathleen Hearn Croshal, is from Pueblo, and she hopes that will bring more interest to the program there.

They have trained 32 lawyers and judges so far to present the program. Gravit said it’s a viable program for teachers to integrate into their curriculum because it’s a lesson they don’t have to plan from scratch.

Our Courts started a little over a decade ago. Gabriel and Gravit said it rose out of Initiative 40, an unsuccessful 2006 ballot initiative to amend Colorado’s Constitution to impose term limits for appellate judges. Gabriel said Our Courts’ original organizers, then-Court of Appeals Judge Russell Carparelli and then-U.S. District Court Chief Judge Marcia Krieger, realized most voters probably don’t know how Colorado’s judicial system works.

“In the whole history of that [initiative], Judge Krieger and Judge Carparelli saw an opportunity. People really have no idea how we select and retain judges in this state,” Gabriel said.

“I’ll say to [the students], there are two really special privileges we have in this country. We get to vote, and we get to sit on juries. I’ll give them the message that when you see judges on the ballot, it doesn’t matter how you vote, but I would ask that you vote educated.”

Gravit said students enjoy discussing how judges interpret different laws and whether they’re constitutional, and they also take an interest in learning about citizens’ role in picking and retaining judges.

“They begin to have this background of [understanding] the judicial branch is important.” She added the hands-on nature of the mock commission program seems to make the lessons memorable for students, and teachers have given input on what types of lesson structures will or won’t be effective. 

“We want them to really engage and determine what makes a good judge. But it also makes them think about what makes a good person,” Gravit said. “They’re going to look at that ballot completely different than they would if they didn’t have this lesson.”

Gabriel said they encourage the students to share what they’ve learned because at the end of the lesson, they have more knowledge than most citizens about the court system. He hopes that makes them feel empowered.

After the program, the students give feedback. Gravit and Gabriel said nearly all of them have said they would like to participate in the program again, though they have gotten requests for adapting it. Gabriel said students who play applicants tend to say they want more information about what questions they might get asked to feel more prepared. And students want to spend more class time on the program, he added.

Gabriel said students seem to get excited about meeting a real judge. He said he believes when they introduce themselves to the classes and engage with the students during the session, it humanizes them to the students. 

You walk in, and they realize [you’re] just a human being,” Gabriel said. “And I think that matters to them.”

Students inevitably want to know how a person becomes a judge. Bernard said he tells them a combination of hard work and a reputation for honesty, integrity, civility and respect will get them a long way. There isn’t a single career path that leads to a judgeship, and as part of the lesson judges discuss with the students how to overcome professional disadvantages. 

Bernard was a prosecutor for 28 years before his appointment to the Court of Appeals. So he had to put in a lot of extra work to learn about civil matters. He had never touched some types of cases as a prosecutor, such as probate or worker’s compensation claims.

They take an interest, he said, in hearing the judges’ personal stories. Gabriel talks to them about being a first-generation college student from Brooklyn, and the students are also curious about cases that have stuck with him, whether they were difficult, funny or just weird. His most difficult case personally came during his tenure on the Court of Appeals bench. The court had to decide whether a 17-year-old leukemia patient could choose for himself whether to have a blood transfusion based on his religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. The court ultimately decided the case based on a jurisdictional issue, but Gabriel said the court labored for months over the decision because of its moral implications.Those personal stories also provide an opportunity to help the students understand how the judicial system functions, as well as what qualities to look for in the merit selection process that make someone a good judge. 

“The law itself is abstract. And if you’re talking to these students, or anybody, at a level of abstraction, it doesn’t have meaning,” Gabriel said. “But when can you connect issues of law to a real-world story to see how it plays out, that matters a lot.”

—Julia Cardi

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