The justices on the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia were far more inquisitive than Alexis Chandler had anticipated.
A junior at Pickens School, Chandler was one of more than 250 students from Randolph, Barbour and Upshur counties who was able to watch the state's highest court hear oral arguments Tuesday in the Randolph County Courthouse as part of the a special project.
The LAWS project - an acronym for Legal Advancement for West Virginia Students-takes place once annually in a select Mountain State community and aims to teach students about West Virginia's criminal justice system.
The Inter-Mountain photo by Katie Kuba
The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia listens to oral arguments in a case involving the state Crime Victims Compensation Fund Tuesday in the Randolph County Courthouse. Also pictured is attorney Richard Olsen.
After hearing arguments on a case involving the Crime Victims Compensation Fund, Chandler said she was somewhat taken back by how much the justices quizzed the lawyers.
"I was surprised to see the judges interact so much with the lawyers and ask so many questions," Chandler said. "I thought they might let the attorneys talk a little more."
Attorneys delivered oral arguments in four cases to captive audiences of students from Elkins High School, Buckhannon-Upshur High School, Philip Barbour High School, Harman School, Tygarts Valley High School and Pickens School - as well as Chief Justice Brent Benjamin and Justices Robin Jean Davis, Margaret L. Workman, Menis E. Ketchum and Allen H. Loughry II.
The cases involved issues surrounding truancy, reimbursement from the state's Crime Victims Compensation Fund, procedures for jury selection and more.
Founded in 1999 under the leadership of then-Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis, the LAWS project arranges for students to spend several weeks learning about a particular case pending before the high court with the assistance of volunteer attorneys who visit their classrooms (attorneys Richard Shryock and John Wallace tutored Chandler and other Pickens School students). Then, after watching the plaintiffs' and defendants' lawyers deliver oral arguments to the high court, students are afforded the unique opportunity to quiz those attorneys on various aspects of those cases.
"I learned a lot," Chandler said. "It was very interesting."
The justices jumped right into questioning the attorneys, as Chandler pointed out, because they already have a grip on the ins and outs of the cases by the time attorneys present oral arguments, Loughry said following Tuesday's session.
"We've spent an enormous amount of time reading and researching these issues before we reach the phase of oral arguments," Loughry explained.
Elkins High School Senior Chelsea Channell said she had been hoping for an even more heated debate between the attorneys and justices in a case centering on the question of whether student loans were reimbursable via the Crime Victims Compensation Fund.
"We've been going over the law and the (state) code for about two weeks," Channell said. "It was intense, but I was hoping for a little bit more argument. I don't think they (attorneys) did enough research. It would have been better if they would have looked at how other states handle the issue."
Loughry, a Parsons native who was elected to the Supreme Court of Appeals in 2012, said the LAWS project is an invaluable asset to West Virginia students as well as the state.
"I support the program whole-heartedly and want to make sure it continues as long as I'm on the court," he said. "We have a lot of people who don't know enough about the third, separate and coequal part of government - our judicial system. It affects virtually everything that happens in someone's life.
"It's critical that we continue to try to reach the next generation of students because they are the future of West Virginia," Loughry added.
Randolph County Circuit Court Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong concurred, calling the LAWS project "a fabulous learning opportunity for our area high school students."
"It is a chance for them to participate in something they may otherwise never experience," Wilfong said in a statement.
"I am proud that our Supreme Court makes projects such as this a priority. We are fortunate to have Justices who see the benefit and importance of outreach projects, and we are proud to have served as the host court."
Contact Katie Kuba by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.