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VOL. 121 | NO. 219 | Thursday, November 9, 2006

State Supreme Court Justices To Tip SCALES in Students' Favor Tuesday

By Amy O. Williams

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Circuit Court Judge Jerry Stokes is local co-chair of the statewide SCALES Project, which seeks to put high school students more in touch with the judicial branch of government. -- Photo By Zachary Zoeller

For many people, navigating the justice system is a daunting prospect. And for those outside the legal profession, it can be downright intimidating.

But a state-sponsored program is working to change that for some Memphis and Shelby County high school students.

The SCALES (Supreme Court Advancing Legal Education for Students) Project will be held in Memphis Tuesday, marking the program's return after a seven-year absence. SCALES events are hosted in several cities across Tennessee each year.

Through the project, more than 400 high school juniors and seniors from 19 city, county and private schools will have front row seats to three cases as they are heard by justices from the highest court in the state - the Tennessee Supreme Court.

"I think this is an excellent vehicle to allow high school students to take a look at the court system," said Circuit Judge Jerry Stokes, co-chair of this year's SCALES Project.

Live performance

Stokes said he hopes the students leave the experience with a better understanding of how the judicial system works.

Understanding the system is important, said attorney Amy Amundsen, partner in the Memphis law firm of Rice, Amundsen & Rogers PLLC and co-chair of this year's SCALES Project.

"The SCALES Project inspires our future leaders and provides the students with confidence in our judiciary," she said.

All four Tennessee Supreme Court justices - William M. Barker, Janice M. Holder, Cornelia A. Clark and Gary R. Wade - will hear three actual cases in the courtroom of the Supreme Court on the third floor of the Shelby County Courthouse at 140 Adams Ave.

About 130 students will enter the courtroom for each case, with each group hearing one of the three cases. The justices will hear two civil and one criminal case. The cases involve medical malpractice and challenges to jury selection in a trial.

Afterward, students will participate in a debriefing in which they will be able to question the attorneys who argued the cases. All students will have an informal lunch with the justices in the courthouse.

The ultimate class project

Earlier this year, letters were sent out to all principals at city, county and private schools inviting them to participate in SCALES. Of those schools, 19 principals indicated they were interested in having students come to the courthouse to hear the Tennessee Supreme Court in session.

Area high schools participating in SCALES include East High School, Sheffield High School and Memphis University School. Students were selected to attend by their principals or teachers.

Students began learning about the cases about four weeks ago. More than 67 attorneys and judges from Shelby County volunteered to go to the schools and teach students about the cases the Supreme Court would hear. Students will be able to use what they learned during the debriefing when they are able to question the attorneys who have just presented their cases.

"All of the students have been given study material, in which they learn how the case reached the Supreme Court, how it started out at the trial court and went up to the appellate court and now is before the Supreme Court," Amundsen said. "The materials also give them a basic understanding of the issues and how to conduct yourself when you're in the courtroom."

For the kids

To help with the approximately 400 teenagers who will descend on the Shelby County Courthouse, local attorneys also have volunteered to greet the students as they exit their buses. Other volunteers will be stationed throughout the courthouse to serve as guides for the students.

Organizing the SCALES Project is a massive undertaking, but worth every bit of hard work, said Susan D. Wilson, a judicial assistant in the Circuit Court Judges' Office.

Wilson helped with planning SCALES when the project was last held in Memphis in 1998 and 1999.

"It's a lot of work and a lot of planning, but it's good for the children," Wilson said.

She wishes this type of program was available when her three children were going through school.

"(SCALES) opens their eyes to a lot of things," she said.

The SCALES Project began in 1995 as an initiative of the Tennessee Supreme Court to teach students about the judicial system. Since then, more than 350 schools and 16,000 students have participated in SCALES events.

"This whole project is designed to educate the students about the third branch of government - the judiciary branch," Amundsen said.

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