“All rise,” is announced and just like that, the auditorium of Amarillo High School transforms into a courtroom for the sitting of the Seventh Court of Appeals as three judges cloaked in traditional judicial robes enter stage left.
“Every once in a while, we travel around the district holding court in different locations, because a lot of people don’t understand appeals courts,” Seventh Court of Appeals Chief Justice Brian Quinn addressed the audience of students. “You guys ever see an appellate court on TV? No one knows what we do.”
What the three justices “do” as an intermediate court is hear appeals for just about any matter, civil or criminal, except death penalty cases. Appeals are heard according to a timed agenda, with each side—the appellant, the person appealing a ruling, and the appellee, the side seeking to affirm a lower court’s ruling–allowed 20 minutes to present arguments. The appellant then follows up with a five-minute rebuttal.
“The depth of thinking through the impact of these decisions is amazing to witness as a teacher.”
On this morning, the intricacies of the judicial system were on trial as justices heard the appeal of a capital murder conviction in front of an audience of students from all AISD high schools. In one argument, the attorney for the appellant contended autopsy photos shown during the trial unfairly prejudiced the jury, pointing out the gruesomeness of the photos was caused by the autopsy itself, not by the actual murder. “It is hard to keep a jury focused on the technicalities of capital murder versus murder with that kind of emotion projected from photos,” attorney Earl Griffin Jr., told the justices.
The details argued, as profound as they were complicated, gave students a rare and invaluable look inside the depths of the judicial system, says Amarillo High School debate teacher Mellessa Denny. Fresh from a weekend mock trial competition in Dallas, Mellessa’s classes were eager to take in all they could from actual court proceedings and apply their new knowledge of the inner workings of the law to classroom discussions. “We study the argumentation aspect and legal aspects like entering evidence and objecting to things that are later brought up on appeal, while the government classes study the process and decisions,” says Mellessa. “This makes the classwork more relevant to students and also leads to amazing conversations in class. Today we talked about the minutiae of the cases and what the decisions of the appeals court would hinge on.”
While it will likely be several months before the justices issue decisions based on the cases heard during this sitting of the Seventh Court of Appeals at Amarillo High, Mellessa’s students are already applying their skills as thinkers, communicators, collaborators and contributors to anticipate the outcomes. “We discussed how decisions based on today’s appeal will impact court decisions in many other cases. This could become something that other appellants or appellees will use as evidence to argue their points,” she says. “The depth of thinking through the impact of these decisions is amazing to witness as a teacher. This real world experience opens the world of law to the students.”