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State Supreme Court visits Wadena, meets with students

By Dana Pavek

The Minnesota Supreme Court Justices visited Wadena Oct. 8 and 9.

On Tuesday night, the justices attended an informal dinner with many prominent Wadena area figures, including Mayor Wolden, several local judges and attorneys, and members of Wadena-Deer Creek School.

   Wadena-Deer Creek (WDC) High School students had the rare opportunity to observe the Minnesota Supreme Court in action last Wednesday morning when the court convened at Wadena Memorial Auditorium. The Supreme Court visit is their way of helping students and the public understand what they do. 

   The high court heard oral arguments in an actual case, State of Minnesota, Respondent vs. Antoine Rumel Little, Appellant – Case No. A11-2319, which originated in Olmstead County District Court. 

   Approximately 450 students from Wadena-Deer Creek, Bertha-Hewitt, Henning, New York Mills, Staples-Motley, Verndale, and MState witnessed the oral arguments, which lasted about an hour. Since the auditorium was considered a courtroom, security was tight at all doors and entrances into the auditorium Wednesday morning. According to Wadena County Sheriff Mike Carr Jr., a dozen officers from the Sheriff’s Department and the Wadena Police Department assisted with security during the Supreme Court proceedings. 

   WDC Superintendent Lee Westrum welcomed the court and visitors, and introduced Seventh Judicial District Judge Mark Hansen. 

   Judge Hansen introduced the Wadena VFW Color Guard, who posted the American and State flags on the stage. Judge Hansen gave students a brief description of how the 150-year-old Minnesota court system is organized, explaining the difference between the District Court, the Court of Appeals, and the Minnesota Supreme Court, as well as how a case gets to the Supreme Court. Lastly, he reviewed with students the rules of decorum. 

   The court was then convened and heard oral arguments in the case. Each attorney had an allotted 25 minutes to argue their case. After the completion of the arguments, the appellant attorney was given five minutes to respond to the opposing party’s arguments.

   During the arguments, the Justices actively engaged the attorneys, frequently interrupting the attorneys and asking them to clarify or defend their positions.  

   WDC Senior Hope Theisen, 18, said she was impressed with how the attorneys presented their positions on the case to the Supreme Court. However, it was the Supreme Court with their wisdom and authoritative grasp of the legal system that she admired. Theisen is considering a future in law and she said witnessing the Supreme Court in action was an exciting opportunity. 

   “It was amazing to see what deep wisdom they have. For me, it was an educational opportunity I won’t ever forget. It definitely furthered my interest in pursuing a career in law,” Theisen said.

   Theisen was one of 14 student leaders from WDC selected to escort a justice during their visit in Wadena. 

Students ask justices questions

   Following the adjournment of the oral arguments, the Justices left the stage and returned minus their black robes to field students’ questions. Each of the Justices gave a brief summary of their college and professional careers that led up to their seat on the Supreme Court. 

   Students were a bit apprehensive at first to ask questions of the high court, that is, until Chief Justice Lorie Gildea delivered a light-hearted threat: If you don’t ask questions, you will have to return to classes! That seemed to light a fire under the students. Over the next 40 minutes, a steady stream of students waited in line to ask the court questions on a variety of topics. 

   One of the memorable moments of the Q and A session, which revealed just how genuine and unpretentious the justices are, came from a student who asked if any of the Justices could recite the “Preamble” from the Constitution. 

   Justice Wilhelmina Wright surprised students - and her fellow Court colleagues  - when she sang the Preamble based on the “SchoolHouse Rock” ditty from the 1970s. Students erupted with cheers as Justice Wright sang the entire 52-word Preamble from memory. The justices and students gave her a standing ovation. 

   Students asked justices what the best and worst parts of their jobs were; how much time they spend on research; if they had any cases, in particular heinous cases, affect them personally; how they relieve stress, and their thoughts on legalizing marijuana (which they could not personally comment on).  

   Justice Alan Page spoke of the diversity of the seven justices and their various backgrounds. 

   “You don’t want a court of seven Alan Pages. You want a court with diversity. That way, you have a better chance of getting [a decision] right,” said Justice Page, who at 68 years of age, is the eldest member of the court.

   Following the Q and A session, the Justices were escorted to Wadena-Deer Creek Middle/High School by student leaders where they ate school lunch and chatted with students in the media center. After lunch, they individually visited classrooms to speak to students. 

   For WDC Ninth-Grader Morgan Sibert, 14, the Supreme Court visit reaffirmed her interest in possibly pursuing a law career. 

   “It was quite interesting. After today, I am even more excited about becoming a lawyer,” Sibert said, who listened to Justice Wright speak to her social studies class.  

   Sibert also credited Wadena attorney Dan Carlisle for preparing herself and her classmates for the Supreme Court visit. “He did a great job of explaining what to expect during the oral arguments and the role of the Supreme Court,” Sibert said.  

   In addition to Carlisle, other Wadena attorneys who visited Robby Grendahl and Brian Maki’s social studies classrooms last week included Paul Carlson, Sue Ann Lind, Don Niles, Matthew Van Bruggen and Malcolm Whynott.


Great day, Great message

   In the Robertson Theatre, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and Justice David Lillehaug fielded a variety of questions and comments from sixth-grade students.