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To Promote Judicial-System Awareness, TN Supreme Court Moves on Campus to Hear Cases

Tennessee’s highest court recently heard arguments in three cases at Middle Tennessee State University as part of a program that seeks to improve students’ understanding of how the judicial system works.

The Tennessee Supreme Court had been invited to MTSU by the American Democracy Project as part of their Constitution Day celebrations, with the intent of improving the understanding of how the judicial branch operates among students and faculty, said Dr. Mary Evins, an associate professor of history at MTSU, and the coordinator of the MTSU Chapter of the ADP.

“I think universally it’s understood that there is an inherent understanding of the executive branch — both at the federal and the state level — and there is an inherent understanding of the legislative branch, whether we love it or not people have opinions about it, but often the Judiciary tends to be the component of our tripartite system that is quite typically overlooked, and it’s such a meaningful part,” Evins told TNReport.

The justices held court at the university as part of its Supreme Court Advancing Legal Education for Students program, which is intended to “educate high school students about the judicial branch of government” by giving them the opportunity to hear oral arguments for a Supreme Court case, according to the Tennessee Courts System website.

“It’s perfectly suited for university students because our students really think and perceive at a higher level, and they have the opportunity for faculty to really go in depth with them, to read the case briefs and to be really, really prepared for intelligent dialogue with the Justices,” Evins said of the program, which took place for the first time on a university campus since its creation in 1995.

Students from the university had the opportunity to sit in on the oral arguments of three cases to be heard before the court, after which they had an hour-long debriefing session with the attorneys handling the cases, where they were able to ask questions about the specific cases, as well as the judicial process in general.

The opportunity offered by the program extends further than better understanding of the judicial process, and also provides students the opportunity to learn how to behave and dress in an official court setting, Evins said.

One professor of business law at MTSU framed the importance of understanding the operations of the judiciary with the upcoming 2014 vote to change the Tennessee Constitution and formally implement the Tennessee Plan for regular judicial retention elections of governor-appointed judges.

“The process we use to choose state Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges is changing, and in the next year, our citizens are going to be voting on a proposal to change the state constitution,” Lara Womack Daniel, an attorney and MTSU business law professor whose classes attended Tuesday’s sessions, said in an MTSU press release.