This spring, Seymour High School English teacher Laura Cottrill will take her students on a field trip to the historic Jackson County Courthouse in Brownstown.
There, they will re-enact the famous courtroom scene from Harper Lee’s “To Killing a Mockingbird,” a tale that explores racism and injustice in the south during the early 1930s.
Students will step into the roles of attorney Atticus Finch and his client, Tom Robinson, Judge John Taylor, the prosecuting attorney and witnesses.
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Through the exercise, the students are able to bring the scene to life and gain a better understanding of how the trial would play out, Cottrill said.
But this week, those students along with U.S. history and government classes and members of the public had the unique opportunity to see a real court case argued live before their very eyes.
Through the Appeals on Wheels event, the school’s auditorium became the courtroom as a three-member panel of the state’s second-highest court, the Indiana Court of Appeals, heard oral arguments in a case out of Marion County.
It was the second time in three years the court has been in Jackson County. In 2016, arguments were presented at Brownstown Central High School.
Appeals on Wheels travels across the state to give Hoosiers a convenient way to observe the real-world issues that face the court and to learn more about the Court of Appeals’ role in Indiana government.
Audiences also get to witness skilled legal arguments and advocacy by lawyers against a backdrop of case-specific facts and statutory and constitutional law.
The appeals court does not re-try cases it receives from local courts, but it does clarify questions of law raised by decisions made by those judges.
In Thursday’s case, a man convicted of carrying a handgun without a license, a Class A misdemeanor, contended the search of his vehicle violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment because police did not have probable cause to stop his vehicle.
The state argued police did have probable cause because the vehicle matched the description officers had of a vehicle from which shots were fired.
Representing the state in the matter was Jackson County native Tyler Banks, who has served as a state deputy attorney general in criminal appeals for three and a half years. Before that, he was a deputy prosecuting attorney in Jackson County.
Banks also argued the 2016 Appeals on Wheels case in Brownstown.
He is a Brownstown Central graduate and went on to earn degrees from Purdue University and Emory University School of Law. His mother, Arann Banks, is executive director of the Jackson County Visitor Center and helped organize Thursday’s event.
Although it’s unusual to give oral arguments in front of a large audience, Banks said it doesn’t change his approach.
“When I’m up there, I have such tunnel vision, I lose all sense of what is behind me,” he said.
The Appeals on Wheels program is a benefit to the public because most people don’t know what appeals entail, including filing briefs and doing oral arguments, he said.
“Oral argument is by far my favorite part of this job,” he said. “It’s so intellectually rigorous and challenging.”
Hearing the arguments were judges Edward W. Najam Jr. of Monroe County, L. Mark Bailey of Decatur County and Melissa S. May of Vanderburgh County.
After oral arguments are presented, the judges confer and write an opinion agreeing with or reversing the lower court’s ruling. That opinion will be issued in a few weeks.
The appellate court issues around 2,000 written opinions each year. Parties can appeal the court’s decision to the Indiana Supreme Court.
After court was adjourned Thursday, the judges and attorneys answered questions from students about the appeals process and other aspects of their careers.
Freshman Lexi Morris took a special interest in the presentation because she wants to be a lawyer.
She listened attentively to what the panelists had to say and even asked how difficult it was for them to take the bar exam to become attorneys.
“I’ve talked to a lot of lawyers, but I’ve never actually seen them work, and I’ve never actually talked to the judges,” she said. “So taking everything I heard them say and how they explained it and then seeing what it actually looks like was cool.”
It was interesting to see how the judges interacted with the attorneys and the conversations they had, Morris added.
She thought the attorneys looked nervous, which surprised her.
But that isn’t deterring her from her interest in law.
“That’s one of the reasons I want to be a lawyer because I do like a bunch of public speaking for FFA,” she said.
Teacher Shane Fallis attended Thursday’s program with his Advanced Placement U.S. history class. Although he doesn’t teach curriculum covering court proceedings, he plans to use the experience when appropriate in the future.
“I hope the opportunity to watch and listen to arguments given by both lawyers, along with the questioning of the judges in response, will help my students better understand the concept of preparing analytical persuasive essay writing,” he said.
He found the proceedings to be very interesting, he said.
“The oral arguments and questioning periods were much shorter than I would have guessed. I am interested in what the final decision of the judges will be,” he said.
“I thought it was wonderful that the judges, lawyers, court reporter, etc. were all willing to give of their time to leave Indianapolis so that students and the general public could have an opportunity to see and understand what the Indiana Appellate Court does,” he said.
Cottrill said seeing the legal appeals process in action was “fascinating” and relates to what she teaches in the classroom.
“We study ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ where if Tom Robinson hadn’t been killed, Atticus Finch planned an appeal,” she said. “So the students (can) understand this is the process he might have gone through.”
The class also studies the Scottsboro case, where nine black teenagers were falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a train in Alabama in 1931, and “Twelve Angry Men,” where the students become jurors to understand how the jury itself works.
“It’s perfect background material,” Cottrill said of having her class participate in Appeals on Wheels. “It’s where real life and the literature come together.”
Cottrill said she hopes by seeing the appeals process in action, her students gain a deeper appreciation for the legal system in the United States.
“As a human institution, there are always flaws, but we are so fortunate to have the opportunity to go before an unbiased judge or an unbiased jury and have our arguments presented and afforded the opportunity to go again if we don’t like the first results,” she said.