New York City High Schoolers Get Their Day in Court

Posted November 23, 2018 7:56 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — On a brisk but sunny morning late last month, 18 students from John Bowne High School in Flushing, Queens, made the 15-mile trek across the city to the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Court House in lower Manhattan.

Several of the nation’s pioneering legal figures have passed through this building, including the courthouse’s namesake, the first African-American to sit on the Supreme Court; Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina; and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who clerked at the district court here in 1960 after being rejected for a Supreme Court clerkship because she was a woman.

But to the average New York City teenager, the courthouse — home to the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals and the district court for the Southern District of New York — must come off as less than welcoming.

Set back on the open plain of Foley Square, its wide, sloping staircase rises to a wall of massive Corinthian columns, behind which looms a forbidding 30-story citadel crowned with a pyramid of shimmering gold. A treat for fans of neoclassical architecture, perhaps, but the overall effect is more glowering fortress than high-school hangout.

Arianna Reyes, a ninth-grader from Maspeth and one of the younger members of the school group, recalled her first impression a few days later. “I hadn’t ever been to a court,” she said. “I’ve only seen pictures of it and read about it. I felt like I was kind of small, and there was something really big going on.”

The day of the visit, Arianna and her fellow students braved the guards’ station and rode the lumbering old elevators to the courthouse’s fifth floor. They were escorted through dark, wood-lined corridors until they found themselves in front of what looked like a glass-paneled laboratory.

Inside were touch-screen kiosks, a computer-based learning center, and a mock-trial courtroom complete with a lawyers’ table, bench and witness stand. At the kiosks, the students swiped through the highlights of Marshall’s life and career and listened to audio of him arguing as a lawyer before the Supreme Court. In the classroom, they learned how to use Google for legal research. In the mock court, they acted out trial scenes from an early 1970s case involving a high school teacher, Susan Russo, who was fired for refusing, for political reasons, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance — the Colin Kaepernick of her day.

The students, who are all enrolled in John Bowne’s four-year law program, were the first to test-drive the new center, which opens officially Dec. 10 and is called Justice For All: Courts and the Community. The idea was hatched in 2014 by Robert Katzmann, the chief judge of the 2nd Circuit. With the help of fellow judges, courthouse librarians and architects, he created the programs to address a crisis of 21st-century America: the lack of meaningful civic education in the nation’s schools.

The statistics are as dispiriting as they are familiar: 1 in 3 Americans can’t name a single branch of government, nearly 3 in 4 don’t know that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and 10 percent of college graduates think Judge Judy is a member of the Supreme Court.

“How can we expect the public to support the judiciary and the Constitution and the rule of law when they know so little about it?” Katzmann asked, sitting in his 24th-floor chambers before heading downstairs to meet the students.

“There needs to be a shared understanding of the principles underlying our governmental system,” he told me. “If that is lost, then what I worry about is that our support for our institutions will go under.”

The damage is already being done, thanks in part to a president who reacts to court rulings he doesn’t like by mocking and threatening individual judges and the court system as a whole.

The center, the first of its kind in the federal court system, isn’t Katzmann’s first attempt to make the courts more accessible. In 2014 he started the Immigrant Justice Corps, a fellowship program that matches recent law school graduates with immigrants in need of legal help. That project was the result of years of watching immigrants lose in court for no reason other than not having a lawyer, but it was also inspired by Katzmann’s personal connection to the immigrant experience — his grandparents on his mother’s side emigrated from Russia, and his father fled Nazi Germany.

After the students finished their tour, Katzmann told them about his family, and about his own experience growing up in the city, attending public schools in Queens and commuting by bus and subway, just as they do. He was joined by Victor Marrero, a senior district judge and co-chairman the civic-education initiative, who attended public school in the Bronx; and Richard Sullivan, who had been confirmed as a judge for the appeals court only days before, and whose parents grew up a block apart from each other in Queens.

As the judges spoke about their lives and various paths to the court, the students, who started out nervous and quiet, relaxed and began to ask questions — the reaction Katzmann was hoping for. “When I’ve done moot courts, I take the students back to the robing room and I say, ‘Put on the robe,’” he said later. “And these are often kids of color. I say, this could be your future. And you really can see in their faces, oh yes, this could be their future.”

Ashley Santacruz, a 12th grader whose parents are from Peru, said she was surprised to learn of Katzmann’s background. “The normal concept I think many people hold is that judges come from families that are judges and attorneys, and they have this life that is just very successful and very easy. And it was very admirable to see that it’s not that way,” she said. “That just motivated me.”

When she started high school, Ashley said, she hadn’t considered pursuing law at all. But after participating in the law program and taking the trip to the 2nd Circuit, she changed her mind. “I want to be — well, I seek to be — a lawyer,” she said, “and, if all goes well, a judge.”

Capitol Broadcasting Company's Opinion Section seeks a broad range of comments and letters to the editor. Our Comments beside each opinion column offer the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about this article.

In addition, we invite you to write a letter to the editor about this or any other opinion articles. Here are some tips on submissions >> SUBMIT A LETTER TO THE EDITOR