MTSU students peppered appeals attorneys in cross-examinations of their own Tuesday after observing the Tennessee Supreme Court hear arguments in three Midstate cases.
Prompted by court rules that had them silencing their phones and quickly removing caps, more than 300 students were joined by faculty, staff and some members of the public to listen to the attorneys as part of the Supreme Court Advancing Legal Education for Students program, or SCALES.
Then students met with those attorneys for hourlong “debriefings” that quickly turned from rehashes of the cases — and brief verbal sparring matches between the lawyers — into pointed inquiries about the judicial process.
MTSU’s American Democracy Project sponsored the special session, which was the first on campus for university students.
“Most of the questions the justices asked y’all indicated that the court won’t take any of that (controversial evidence) into account in its ruling. It looks like they’re going to just follow the statute,” one student told Nashville attorney Jonathan L. Miley, who is handling appeals for Glover P. “Palmer” Smith of Murfreesboro in a missing persons case.
“Well, the evidence doesn’t line up with the trial jury’s decision,” Miley replied. “It doesn’t surprise me that the court has chosen this case to hear. The big issue really is dealing with the statutory limitations, but obviously those aren’t as ‘sexy’ as the facts of the case.”
Smith, who reported his wife, Marsilene "Marcy" Smith, missing in December 2007, was convicted in 2010 of fabricating evidence and filing a false report after a nationally publicized criminal investigation that included parking-lot security videotapes, a mysterious bicyclist and a still-missing wife. Smith appealed his convictions and sentences to the state's high court.
“You have to keep in mind that in the eyes of the law, he has not killed his wife,” said Jeff Zentner, assistant attorney general in the criminal investigation division of the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office. “It is a cold case. He is not guilty or even suspected of murder.”
Another student asked the attorneys how many times they’d argued cases before the justices. Miley is a three-time veteran of the high court chambers; Zentner said he’d appeared before the Tennessee Court of Appeals “dozens of times” but Tuesday’s arguments were his first before the state Supreme Court.
“You’re nervous, yes, but under normal circumstances you also don’t have several hundred people watching you in a state Supreme Court case,” he joked.
The high court’s regular chambers in Nashville only holds a few dozen spectators. That’s one of the reasons the SCALES program was created — the Tennessee Supreme Court normally meets in Jackson, Knoxville and Nashville, as required by the state Constitution, but a few times a year the court takes its oral arguments on the road to educate high school and college students about the judicial branch of government.
“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,” said Lara Womack Daniel, an attorney and MTSU business law professor whose classes attended Tuesday’s sessions.
She was referring to a measure on the 2014 ballot to add language to the Constitution that formalizes the “Tennessee Plan” of voters “retaining” gubernatorial appointees for appellate court judgeships.
“I hope these students, by participating in this event today, will be better prepared to participate in that important decision next year and in the future,” Daniel said. “I want them to see what the court does and how accountable to the public they are so they can make informed decisions.”
The Tennessee Supreme Court includes Justices Cornelia Clark, Janice M. Holder, William C. Koch, Sharon G. Lee and Gary R. Wade. Justice Wade serves as chief justice of the court. The justices and their special audiences also heard arguments in:
- Garcia v. Tennessee, which involves the immigration consequences of a guilty plea. Juan Alberto Blanco Garcia was illegally in the United States in 2008 when he was accused of multiple offenses in Warren County. He fled and was apprehended by police in 2011, then pleaded guilty to child abuse and neglect and was deported. Garcia tried to re-enter the United States, was arrested in Texas and requested post-conviction relief, claiming his attorney didn't adequately inform him of the consequences of his plea agreement.
- In Re Baby L.G. et al, a Davidson County case involving a Tennessee woman who agreed to be a surrogate for a couple from Italy. Six days after the child was born, the surrogate asked the Davidson County Juvenile Court to stop the intended parents from taking the child outside the country, but the court refused. The surrogate lost an appeal before the Tennessee Court of Appeals and wanted the state Supreme Court to hear the case.
The time frame for the court’s rulings varies from weeks to months, depending on the nature of the case.
“This was a really great experience,” freshman English major Hanah Owens of Blountville, Tenn., said after hearing the Garcia arguments and having a photo taken with the justices and classmates in Dr. Mary Evins’ honors “Survey of United States History II” course.
Evins, an associate professor of history at MTSU, is also the sponsor of the university chapter of the American Democracy Project and one of the organizers of Tuesday’s event.
“The hearing was a lot more interesting than a lot of people expected,” Owens said. “I think everyone’s seen TV shows and was thinking that a hearing wouldn’t be so intriguing, but it was great.”
Senior political science major Candace Parker of Spring Hill, Tenn., had a similar response to the Smith appeals hearing.
“I was kind of nervous just being in there because I didn’t know exactly what to expect with the state Supreme Court,” she explained after the debriefing. “There was some awkwardness in asking the questions, but then the justices made a few comments that made everyone feel a little less awkward.”
Attorney Zentner joked that observers always “expect the justices to ask hard questions, and they certainly do, but these students in this room, they asked the tough questions.”
Since the creation of the program in 1995, the SCALES project has given more than 25,000 Tennessee students the ability to see the judicial branch in action.
You can read more about Tuesday’s cases, including links to the legal briefs, at the American Democracy Project’s website, http://capone.mtsu.edu/amerdem