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Off-site visit gives students real look at state’s high court

Judges laugh and joke among themselves and others, high school students learned during Wednesday’s off-site visit of the Ohio Supreme Court.

“I expected it to be more of what you see on TV,” said Emily O’Connor. “I expected them to be really strict and stern.”

“Like she said,” added Nick Heydinger, “TV shows usually portray judges as really strict.”

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The Ohio Supreme Court conducted hearings Wednesday at Bellefontaine High School’s Distance Learning Center, giving area high school students a chance to observe how the court works. It is part of the court’s off-site program to provide learning opportunities throughout Ohio. LEFT: Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O’Donnell talks with students prior to the session. RIGHT: Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith L. French questions attorney Paul Flowers during Wednesday’s court session. FRONT PAGE PHTOTO: An attorney appears before the justices. EXAMINER PHOTOS | JOEL E. MAST

Instead, they observed during introductions and oral arguments the justices’ wit and ability to respectfully engage attorneys in questions of law.

And, both of the Bellefontaine High School juniors also noticed the serious business that takes place when the court is in session.

“They asked so many questions of the attorneys,” Emily said, “and it seemed like they were almost against the attorneys.”

“I would never have known how to answer,” Nick said, adding he admired the ability of the attorneys to think on their feet.

They were among students from Bellefontaine, Riverside, Indian Lake and Benjamin Logan high schools and the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center who sat in on four oral arguments at Bellefontaine’s Distance Learning Center.

Schools were divided among the cases and each group had the opportunity to ask questions of participating attorneys afterward.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor noted it was appropriate to hold the event on a high school campus because the main goal of the off-site programs is education.

This event could not be conducted in the Logan County Courthouse as it was damaged in June's windstorm. The courthouse has been vacated while awaiting repairs.

The school facilities provided ample room to observe the arguments and an area for follow-up.

Bellefontaine and Riverside students sat in on a personal injury case that never made it to trial.

The plaintiff, represented by attorney Paul Flowers, was paralyzed sledding down a mound of dirt stored temporarily at a Circleville city park.

Paul Scialdone, representing the city, says Ohio’s recreational immunity laws protect Circleville from liability.

Students asked them if they become emotionally involved in the cases they argue.

“You do a better job if you believe in what you’re doing,” Mr. Flowers said. “But you’ve got to be able to let it go when it’s over.”

Mr. Scialdone agreed.

He also noted you can’t read much into the justices’ questions.

“Sometimes they are asking questions to test their own understanding of the law,” he said. “You have to look at the questions as a vehicle you can use to change the justices’ minds.”

Prior to the hearings, the justices introduced themselves and answered questions about the job.

Justice Paul Pfeifer provided the most concise answer when asked what make the justices more qualified than other judges to sit on the high court.

“We ran and we won,” he said, eliciting laughs from his colleagues and the audience.

Justice O’Connor said that is the process in Ohio. Unfortunately, she added, voters don’t pay much attention to judicial races.

“There is typically a 25 percent drop in voter participation in the judicial races compared to the top ticket races,” she said. “A lot of it is name recognition. Last time, I won all 88 counties and I think it was because of my name.

“That’s why we need to educate the public and why your participation in today’s session is so important.”

She laments that the job of education is hurt by mass media portrayals, particularly television shows.

The afternoons are filled with bombastic stereotypes while evening fare can portray judges as bumbling or corrupt.

“The public can get a really skewed view of the judiciary,” she said. “This (the off-site program) is reality TV.”

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