Two ongoing programs help to explain courts’ roles

A group of Helias Catholic High School students met at the Cole County Courthouse last Tuesday with, and competed against, a similar group of Columbia Rock Bridge students in a Supreme Court-sponsored competition called “The Constitution Project.”

“We want to instill a greater understanding of the Constitution and a greater love for the Constitution, and the freedom it protects, in our school kids,” Judge Douglas Gaston explained, as the competition was beginning.

Gaston is an associate circuit judge in south-Central Missouri’s Texas County, credited with starting the program a couple years ago.

“We did some mock trial activities in my county and then, talking with some school kids a couple of days and asking them what they wanted to do when they got out of school — I couldn’t believe that, like, 75 percent of them were saying, ‘I want to be a crime scene investigator’ or ‘a forensic pathologist’ or all these things that they see on the CSI shows,” he explained. “That was a real springboard for me.

“I thought, ‘That’s what they enjoy, so let’s plug that in and make it something fun and hands-on for them, that they can relate to.’ And that’s how we got it off and rolling.”

In his State of the Judiciary speech to lawmakers last January, then-Chief Justice Richard Teitelman explained the program: “Some students investigated the crime scene and analyzed the evidence, others reported in the local newspaper and radio stations about the progress of the investigation and case, and the rest served as prosecution and defense attorneys.

“The project helped them see first-hand how so many facets of our constitutional system of government work together.”

Last week’s trip to the Cole County Courthouse was for the high school students’ competition “trial” phase, after they studied the “crime scene” — a “traffic accident” near Rock Bridge High School resulting in “criminal charges.”

“We spend several weeks with the kids, with their mentors, where they really learn the skills,” Gaston said. “Then we turn them loose on the crime scene (and) in the trial. …

“We understand they can’t get a law school education in a month — but they’ve learned the basic rules of evidence, how to present exhibits and all those things. So, they get to, actually, do their thing and do it just like the professionals would.”

Separately — not connected with the Constitution Project — on Wednesday afternoon, three judges from the state appeals court’s Kansas City office held court in Lincoln University’s Scruggs University Center Ballroom, and heard oral arguments on three cases. Thursday morning, the same three judges heard three different cases while visiting the Westminster College campus in Fulton.

The court, which serves 45 Central and Western Missouri counties, occasionally travels to sites around the district so that people — especially college students — can see its operations.

Jefferson City lawyer John Landwehr presented part of one of Wednesday’s cases.

“Anything we can do to help our citizens understand a little bit more about government and — in this case, the judiciary — is a good thing,” Landwehr said. “A lot of folks don’t know much about the judiciary. …

“But, what I like about this is that, hopefully, there is a little bit better understanding about the status of a trial court decision, and the levels of appeal — and what you can appeal and what you can’t appeal.”

For some, it may have been ironic that the students were learning more about the legal system and its role in the state and federal constitutions on the same day the attorney general’s office decided not to retry Ryan Ferguson for a 12-year-old murder — after a three-judge state appeals court panel (different from the group that visited LU and Westminster last week) ruled a week before that some problems with the pre-trial communication between the prosecution and defense justified requiring that Ferguson be released from prison unless the state prosecuted a new trial.

Talking about the appeals court in general — not the Ferguson case — Landwehr noted: “In 99 percent of appellate cases, there is no new evidence. These judges are looking at the transcripts of proceedings. …

“The court of appeals will only overturn a decision if it’s erroneous as a matter of law, or faulty according to some other standards — but there’s a heavy presumption in favor of the correctness of the trial court decision.”

Although Ferguson’s lawyer argued he actually was innocent of the murder charge, the court ruled only on the prosecution’s pre-trial failure to tell the defense about a witness interview.

Landwehr said: “The appellate court — whether it’s this intermediate appellate court or the Supreme Court — are really there to catch the relatively few mistakes that get generated, so that our citizens aren’t saddled with a mistake at the trial court level. …

“It’s that appellate system that gives our American (legal) system a lot of credibility, I think, because there are those safety nets that correct and catch a few erroneous decisions as they are generated.”

Gaston said he, and “all of our mentors and adults who help” with the Constitution Project before it gets to the competition stage, “wind up saying that (they) sure wish we’d had something like that in school.”

But the ultimate lesson for the students, he hopes, is: “That our freedom is a precious thing, and we all have to keep fighting for it and we all have to honor our Constitution to do that.”

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