In years past, the Rhode Island Supreme Court would “ride the circuit” and travel statewide to hear arguments, because before the invention of the car, it was often difficult for all parties to make it to court. Once the infrastructure, as well as automotive technology, improved this practice was discontinued. But for the last 17 years, the court has revived the practice, travelling once or twice a year to different venues around the state to hear their cases for the day and make the judicial process more transparent for Rhode Island residents.
On Wednesday, April 4, five esteemed Justices of the Supreme Court “rode the circuit” to Lincoln High School to hear three appeals: The State of Rhode Island vs Ashner Alexis, a murder case; Ian Delong vs Rhode Island Sports Center, a negligence case; and Angela Luis vs Kevin Gaugler, a disputed common law marriage case. The proceedings were open to the public and to students of Lincoln High School so that they “can see first hand how their justice system works,” said Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell, in the court’s official press release.
When the court travels, certain criteria have to be met at the facility. According to a checklist from the Rhode Island Supreme Court Office of Community Outreach, these criteria include parking for the judges; a “court room” with controlled access, a secure room that provides a conference room and a private place where the justices can robe, private and easily accessible lavatories, tables for the judges’ bench and clerks, counsel tables, a lectuern, and a sound system. Security must also be increased, and metal detectors installed at the entrance of the courtroom, as well as a table for officers to inspect bags. Traditionally the host provides breakfast and lunch for the judges as wella s guest, such as students and staff from the host site as well.Kevin Gaugler in the disputed common law marriage case said that “there’s nothing more serious or formal reward” than being in the Supreme Court. This was her first time doing a “travelling show,” and she said that it was “more cordial” here and less formal.
Jodi Gladstone, a public defender representing Ashner Alexis felt that “I had to be more prepared,” because while the judges understand the legal specificities of the cases, the audience may not. She also added that while defense attorneys often don’t get all the way through their arguments, she was able to do so in this case for the educational value of it.
Assistant Attorney General Jane McSoley, the prosecutor in the Ashner Alexis case, echoed Gladstone’s sentiments. “It’s always different,” she said, having argued cases at the schools in previous years.”Sometimes you have to expand on your explanations.” At these sessions “you’re hoping that the audience is enjoying it,” which isn’t typically a concern in the courtroom, she added.
The event was well-received by the LHS community as well as among the legal professionals present. Sophomore Ezra Blazing, who is considering a career in law, said that he felt that the most interesting part was “how the attorneys and justices interacted,” and the way the judges had “such a prominent role” with the attorneys.
Chief Justice Suttell seemed to agree. After the cases were heard, he spoke to the audience about a variety of topics, and told the audience that what they had just witnessed was an accurate representation of the judicial branch in action. The law “is not a game of gotcha,” he explained, adding that while attorneys on opposite sides may be opponents in the courtroom, “they are brothers and sisters in a profession.”
Gladstone agreed. “The clients come and go, and the lawyers stay,” she said.
The event “really opened my eyes to what a real court does and how it works,” said Blazing, “and it gave me a good perception of what I can expect if that is something I do want to pursue down the road.”
Travelling Court sessions benefit the justices and attorneys as well. “It’s always exciting for us to appear before students,” said Chief Justice Suttell, “because it energizes us.”
For McBurney, she was “so happy to see high school students empowered to take part” in their society.
And, perhaps most of all, “it was fun,” said McSoley.