Courtroom Visits for Students
This brochure contains suggestions for those organizing educational courtroom visits for students -- an activity that often brings young people a better understanding of the role of courts in our society.
Teachers, judges and court clerks in particular will find these suggestions helpful in arranging and conducting these important educational experiences for maximum effectiveness. Committee on Youth Legal Education The State Bar Michigan.
What To Do Before The Visit
At some point before the court visit date, the teacher will want to discuss with students the type of court being visited and its differences from the other courts in this state.
The function of the courts is to administer justice and interpret the laws. The Supreme Court in Lansing is Michigan's highest court. Its seven justices decide, by majority vote, appeals from the lower courts and direct the work of other courts. The Michigan Court of Appeals is an intermediate appellate court whose judges sit in panels to hear cases. The Court of Appeals meets in Lansing, Detroit, Grand Rapids and Marquette.
The Circuit Court is organized along county lines, except that a group of counties may be in the same circuit (in less-populated areas). The Circuit Court generally deals with major civil cases and felony criminal trials. The Probate Court, also organized along county lines, includes the juvenile division and hears cases on wills, guardianships, adoptions and commitments of the mentally ill. District Courts have jurisdiction over some civil cases, misdemeanors, and other matters. Recorders Court in Detroit decides felony cases within that city. Finally, there are also Municipal Courts in a few cities.
All of these courts generally are open for visits by students as well as the public. It should be noted, however, that juvenile proceedings are often closed. Teachers should inquire directly of the local probate judge whether these visitations are permitted.
HOW TO START: Visits should be initiated by a call to the court clerk or administrator to determine the best day and time for the visit. Teachers may request copies of previous court dockets to review with members of their classes prior to the visit. This familiarization with dockets will pay big dividends in understanding once the actual visit begins.
GOOD TIMES TO VISIT: Timing is important in planning an educational court visit. Days when preliminary examinations are being conducted are good days because they compress the presentation of the facts of a case into a relatively short time span.
Jury selection is an interesting process which helps demonstrate key points in the system.
Civil infractions and traffic violations, cases often heard in District Courts, demonstrate how the system works while dramatizing human failings, frailties and sometimes even heroics.
For mature students, involuntary commitment hearings in Probate Court are instructive and revealing.
Avoid motion day. It will tend to create confusion rather than understanding.
Positive educational results tend to occur in court visits when certain expectations are recognized and met. Court officials often expect teachers to accompany students, especially when an entire class is involved in the visit. On the other hand, independent visitation by a small group of high school students in some cases may be more productive.
A SUCCESS TIP: Students should always be required to react to the experience of a visit with some kind of a product: A report, summary of activities, a newspaper article, or simple notes should be encouraged to insure close attention to the proceedings.
Dress and demeanor should be appropriate to the decorum of the courtroom. School "colors" are not recommended and quiet is vital. The judge is always addressed as "Your Honor" and the audience stands when the judge enters and leaves the courtroom. This respect is accorded the court -- not necessarily to any individual judge -- but to the entire system.
In larger courts, such as Recorders Court or Wayne County Circuit Court, many cases are proceeding concurrently and if a delay or recess should occur, visitors are free to move to another courtroom. This leave-taking, however, should be done only during a break in testimony or a recess.
What Visitors May Expect:
- Visitors deserve to be openly and courteously welcomed to their court. A designated representative of the court should meet them to provide the assistance needed to make the visit meaningful and educational. The office of the court clerk usually handles this assignment.
- Visitors may expect background information on the court they are visiting. This usually consists of a verbal presentation or printed materials such as a brochure describing the court plus a list of cases scheduled. The simpler the language of these materials, the greater the educational impact. "Legalese" won't do the job.
- Visitors expect to be able to observe and hear the proceedings. Courtrooms should be arranged so that visitors are able to hear what participants -- witnesses, attorneys, court officials -- are saying. The ability of those in attendance to hear and understand is what makes trials public rather than private. The Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court has stated that the Michigan Court System has a responsibility in law- related education and must make public understanding about the law a major priority.
A judge may provide inspiration to young people in many ways. In order for a young person to see himself or herself as a part of our unique legal system, students must be positively influenced by the recognized leaders of our system. A judge has the unique opportunity to provide this positive influence in the course of a court visit.
Open communication is a priority. Judges should talk to visitors on breaks or during recesses, whether in court or in chambers. Students are likely to be responsive to this approach. Welcome them and show them the facilities -- the law library, the "holding room," or the clerk's office. A brief explanation of your thinking and ruling on the case students have just observed may prompt questions which will lead to opportunities for positive exchanges.
Encourage an attitude of public access in your court. Assume the responsibility to educate young people on the duties of citizens within the legal system. These actions are excellent public relations for both the legal system and the judge.
Producing and distributing a pamphlet with names (and perhaps pictures) of judges, bailiffs, prosecutors and permanent staff can help make personnel more identifiable and less remote. Including information on procedures for small claims, infractions and misdemeanors can "demystify" the court's workings and minimize the adversarial atmosphere which can arise out of the nature of the business of the court.
Suggestions for Clerks
As the person most likely to greet students, provide information and set the tenor of the student visit, the role of the court clerk is very important.
Visits should be welcomed an an opportunity for positive community contact. An appointment book kept specifically for such visits, as well as arrangements for greeting the scheduled group at the beginning of the visit can help make the occasion nondisruptive and mutually beneficial.
Background information to facilitate understanding should be provided. This might be an oral briefing or a printed list of cases scheduled during the visit, including the cause of action or charge, and whether the cases are civil, criminal, felony or misdemeanor matters. Visitors to court will welcome your suggestions as to which cases might prove to be most interesting. It is best to assume that visitors do not understand what is going on in the courtroom.
Then give them as much information and advice as you can.
With the cooperation of all involved, court visits can be a real student eye-opener. Reveal the majesty of the law and its workings to students -- and they may perceive their vital stake in the future strength and justice of our legal system!
This pamphlet may be purchased individually or in bulk from the State Bar of Michigan, Membership Services Department, 306 Townsend Street, Lansing, Michigan 48933-2083. You may call 1-800-948-1442 ext. 6326 to obtain price information.