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After hearing case in school theater, members of state Supreme Court discuss their work with students

Associate Justice G. Barry Anderson answers students' questions. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- A Supreme Court hearing they attended this week resonated with some Willmar Senior High students.

"I learned that things can come back to haunt you," said David Bielenberg, a 17-year-old senior.

"Even little things," added Jose Gonzalez, 16, a junior.

The students in Lyle Hovland's psychology class said they had found the case interesting when the Supreme Court came to their school to hear arguments in an appeal. The court's justices conduct hearings twice a year in high schools. This was their third visit to Willmar since the school visits began in the 1990s. The hearing was also simulcast to other high schools in the area.

The case of J.J.P. caught the students' attention. Because the appeal was about expunging juvenile records, only the young man's initials were used. He had been convicted of burglary and theft as a juvenile and was denied a paramedic license in his early 20s. The court system expunged his juvenile record, but the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension hasn't.

The arguments in the court case covered the question of whether one branch of government can order another branch to take a specific action.

After the hearing, the 500 students at the hearing had an hour to ask questions of the justices. After the large group gathering, the justices visited classes.

Associate Justice Barry Anderson spoke to Hovland's class. Anderson admired the students' iPads, before Hovland ordered them put the devices away during the visit.

The courts are in the process of transferring information electronically. "Probably within three years, if you get involved with a court proceeding, it will be handled mostly electronically," he added.

Anderson spoke with the students about their basic rights and about his law career before joining the Minnesota Court of Appeals and then the Supreme Court.

Hovland asked how judges set aside their own feelings to arrive at rulings.

"You just do the best you can," Anderson responded.

Anderson said lawyers and judges are trained to set aside their personal beliefs when they are trying cases. While no one's perfect, he said, they do their best to recognize and set aside their personal beliefs as much as possible.

In another classroom, Associate Justice Alan Page was asked a similar question. He told the students in an English Language Learners class that he considers himself to be working for them and takes that into account when he comes to work each day.

"It's called public service," he said. "Our work isn't to benefit us; it's to benefit all of us."

Page also spoke with the students about the challenges they face and the education foundation he and his wife have founded to help students of color.

Page said he understood that learning English was a difficult thing for them. "But once you get through it, you're going to be so much better off than most of us," he said. "One of my great regrets is not being able to communicate in another language."

He urged the students to remember the Page Education Foundation when they graduate and consider going on to college. The foundation has helped a number of new immigrants with scholarships, he said.

"We'd love to be able to help you," he added. "I happen to believe that if we're going to survive as a civilization, we all have to figure out how to work together, how to live together and how to make the world a better place together."

A number of students said they were anxious to find out how the case turns out for J.J.P. Anderson told them it could take as long as six months, but someone from the court offices would notify the school about the decision.

Ivory Borden, 17, a senior, said the strict rules of courtroom decorum made for a long morning in the school auditorium. "I feel like I learned a lot," she said. "It was my very first time to be in a court room."

Bielenberg and Gonzalez said they found the case and arguments relevant for young people.

"A lot of us make mistakes," Bielenberg said.

"If you want to make your future better, you should be able to expunge the little things," Gonzalez said.

Some of them felt the members of the court seemed sympathetic to J.J.P., but they said they didn't know if that would affect the decision.

Outside the classroom, Anderson said he was impressed with how knowledgeable the students were. The court always enjoys visiting schools, he said. The court visits two schools a year, one in the metro area and one outstate.

"We have not had a single negative experience with students," Anderson said. "They have always been respectful; they ask great questions."

For High School Principal Paul Schmitz, the day with the Supreme Court was the culmination of weeks of preparation. The hardest part of the preparation, he said, was deciding who got to attend the hearing, in a school with 1,200 students and 500 available seats.

Schmitz said the event pulled together school departments and outside organizations. Kandiyohi County Attorney Jenna Fischer arranged visits to classrooms by area lawyers who taught about the judicial system and proper courtroom behavior.

The preparation all paid off in the praise the justices had for the school's preparation and the behavior of its students, Schmitz said, and the experience benefited students.

"It's impossible for any of us, students included, to know what a courtroom is actually like," he said. "It's not like on TV."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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