Judge Harold “Duke” Eaton Jr. signs in for the first time as a member of Vermont Supreme Court as Governor Peter Shumlin looks on. (2014 Diana Hayes Photo)
By Eric Francis, Standard Correspondent
A truly unique honor is going to befall Woodstock Union High School next month, proving once again that it’s nice to have friends in high places.
For the first time ever, the five justices of the Vermont Supreme Court will hold one of their actual court sessions in a public school, affording 400 WUHS students the opportunity to come into the auditorium throughout the day to watch oral arguments from the lawyers in five current cases that are before the court for consideration.
“The idea to bring the Supreme Court into public schools is one I had based upon my discussion with members of the Maine and New Hampshire Supreme Courts concerning their visits to public schools,”
Associate Justice Harold “Duke” Eaton Jr., himself a 1973 graduate of WUHS, explained this week.
“I raised the issue with my colleagues on the Vermont court, who were unanimously in favor of doing it,” Justice Eaton continued, noting that “Woodstock was asked because I wanted our initial visit to be to my alma mater.”
Normally the justices hear the vast majority of cases in their ornate Supreme Court building, which sits on the lawn of Vermont’s Statehouse in Montpelier, but over the years “the supremes” have developed a fall tradition of heading out for what they call “On The Road” sessions somewhere around the state, usually at a local courthouse in one of Vermont’s thirteen counties, or, in recent years, at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton.
WUHS Principal Garon Smail, who once had the New Hampshire Supreme Court visit a previous school of his in the Granite State, noted that schools “strive to engage our students in authentic learning experiences” while calling the upcoming Oct. 12 event at WUHS, “an incredible opportunity for students to witness our law-based society in action and up close.”
Other area schools are being invited to send their students to see the proceedings in Woodstock next month and members of the public can also attend although anyone wishing to do so should come a bit early in order to clear routine security screening and be prepared to observe Vermont’s normal rules of public court etiquette.
“Given the increased interest in the rule of law based upon current national issues, having arguments in a public school is a good way to educate students about the judicial branch of government and its interaction with the other two branches,” Justice Eaton said, adding, “We hope the arguments
will serve as way to educate students, and members of the public about the role of the Supreme Court in deciding the issues of importance to Vermonters.”
Aside from the unusual setting, the actual court proceedings will stick closely to the way they would unfold before the supreme court with attorneys from each side being given 15 minutes to argue their case, but the justices will also hold morning and afternoon question-and-answer sessions with students and eat lunch with them in the WUHS cafeteria.
“It’s incumbent on judges and lawyers to support outreach and education,” Chief Justice Paul Reiber said in a statement about the event, adding, “This will be a live lesson in civics.”
For his part, Justice Eaton added, “It shouldn’t just be judges and attorneys who understand how it works. It needs to be everybody.”
This article first appeared in the September 28, 2017 edition of the Vermont Standard.