In a civil trial Pat Roman, student, is suing Terry Wordshaw, high school literature teacher, alleging an unlawful search of his personal property.
The jury is out to recess, and the judge calls the defense witness to the stand.
A voice from the side of the courtroom speaks up.
“Judge, we have no jury,” she says. “Perhaps we should call them in first.”
Chuckles and faint laughter rise from the packed courtroom. It’s a large crowd of 50 plus for a civil case.
The judge, jury, plaintiff, defense, and court attorneys are not your average crowd, though. They’re dressed professionally and hold prepared evidence and opening statements, but arguments between attorneys at recess and cameras flashing in the crowd make the scene a lively one.
This is a group of high school students participating in the Courts Are Us program, staging a mock trial, trying to prove their own sides of a staged case in a real courtroom. The public crowding the room are their parents, friends and family members, coming to see what they’ve learned.
The six-week Pima County Summer Youth Program puts students to work in the county judicial system in all departments. From the interpreters’ office to information technology to the legal defenders’ office, students work 30 hours a week for minimum wage and spend two hours each Monday in a classroom learning about the judicial system.
During that time, they file court paperwork, help with clerical tasks, tour courthouses and get to sit in on trials.
At the end of the program, students stage a mock trial based on a case presented to them at the beginning of their work program.
Ashley Dodds-Turner, a 15-year-old sophomore at ACE Academy, acted as the defense attorney in the trial, and she said it was a challenge at times.
“It’s thinking on your feet, being on the ball,” Dodds-Turner said. “Real court is different in a lot of ways, but it’s also the same in a lot of ways.”
Dodds-Turner wants to pursue a career in criminal justice as a result of her experience in the program.
“I learned that being in an office is like being in a family,” she said.
Benjamin Griem, law clerk and bailiff for Judge Pro Tem Howard Fell, has worked with the students for the past three years to prepare for the mock trials. He said they spent two to three hours a week twice during the program writing their arguments, understanding the facts and preparing for the trial.
“With these guys, they were invested in the arguments and the facts they were asked to present,” Griem said. “It keeps them interested in the arguments and invested if they want to work in the courthouse.”
For many of the students, this wasn’t their first trip through the program. Michael Kaufmann, an 18-year-old Salpointe graduate, has been in the program for four years. He wants to become a filmmaker and writer, but he says his experience with the program has inspired him to do so.
“The biggest thing I’ve taken away is hearing everyone’s side of the story,” Kaufmann said.
When asked by Richard Elías, a Pima County Board of Supervisors member, at the graduation reception to describe their experience in one word, the results were mixed: exciting, educational, revealing, overwhelming, didactic.
Of the 500 or more students who apply to the Pima County Summer Youth Program, 30 are chosen to work in the Courts Are Us program, while many others are placed in different jobs in the county.
The Courts Are Us program has been in existence for 22 years, having been started by retired Pima County Superior Court Judge Norman Fenton after the Rodney King riots in 1992 to inspire young people to trust in the justice system again. The program is funded partially by federal grants, but primarily by the Pima County Board of Supervisors.
“Before coming, I thought I’d learn a lot more about how the courts work,” said Cameron Cook, 18, an Empire High School graduate. “But I’ve learned a lot about the opportunity we have as citizens.”