If You're A Judge, You Can't Quit? Middle Schoolers Visit Appellate Court

May 23, 2017

A group of middle schoolers from Brownsville got a behind-the-scenes look at the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami on Tuesday, along with the chance to run the place long enough to hold mock arguments in a case about school security.

The field trip, timed to coincide with the American Bar Association’s celebration of law day, is part of an ongoing partnership between Brownsville Middle School and the Miami law firm Hamilton, Miller & Birthisel.

Chief Judge Richard Suarez was quick to dispense with the formality of the setting as entered the courtroom. “Does anyone know what we do here at the appellate court?" he asked the group of 40 students visiting an appellate court for the first time.

"Because don’t know, I only work here.”

“You try to lessen your sentence,” one student ventured.

Yes and no: the true purpose of the appellate court, Suarez explained, is to correct “mistakes” made in trial courts at the district level.

“If you’re a judge, you can’t quit?” one student asked—“That’s the Supreme Court,” a classmate chided her. Judges, Suarez explained, can quit whenever they want to. “All you do is you send a letter to the governor… say, ‘Governor, I don’t want to be a judge anymore,’ and you get out…But I tell you what, being a judge is a pretty good gig.”

The meat of the trip was taken up with an appeal of a hypothetical case from Brownsville Middle School, where an executive order made by the school’s principal—“President Dunn,” in this scenario—had authorized a no-hats rule targeting only some groups of students. Students had to prepare arguments based on due process and equal protection provisions of the fourteenth amendment, with backup from grown-up lawyers.

Carl Terrell (right) listening to attorney Michelle Delancy (right), on how to debate in a mock trial.
Credit Adrianne Gonzalez / WLRN News

“William and Barack was not given due process because when they asked to see their parents, they was denied,” said Aaliyah Holmes, who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs. Judges whispered tough questions in the ear of their 7th grade stand-ins: can’t the president take away some rights for the sake of protecting everyone’s security?

After 20 minutes of back-and-forth, the court took the matter under advisement.

“I do think that we have a couple attorneys and judges, potentially,” said attorney Marlon Hill, who organized the event in support of a magnet program in law at the school. “It will be interesting for us to see these 13 year olds, 14 year olds in about ten years, whether we’ll have the pleasure of writing a letter of recommendation."

These annual law day celebrations are in their third year, Hill explained. The ‘judge’ from last year’s field trip still lights up when Hill calls him by that title around school. Next year, Brownsville is slated to get a mock courtroom on campus Judge Richard Suarez has already signaled his intention to hold real live oral arguments there when it’s set up.

Student Luis Altamirano (right) from Brownsville Middle School, listening to attorney Patricia Peña (left) advise him how to defend his point in this mock trial.
Credit Adrianne Gonzalez / WLRN News