Leavitt-area high school students listen to Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill make presentations on Wednesday before hearing oral arguments in appeals cases held at the Turner School. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

It’s not often Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court is a hot topic, but there was a noticeable buzz Wednesday in the halls of Leavitt Area High School as students and staff shared their predictions on the outcome of appellate cases being debated in the auditorium.

In the third case of the day, a lawyer for Mark Penley argued that errors and misconduct at his trial, which ultimately led to two murder convictions, warranted a retrial.

But some students and staff say they weren’t convinced.

“I don’t think the guy had any wiggle room,” said government and history professor Jake Foster, listing the evidence against Penley. “I would be surprised if he got a new trial.”

This week, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine traveled to Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris and Leavitt Area High School in Turner to hear three appeal cases before students and school staff.

The events are part of a larger state program to expose students to the judicial branch of government. Since 2005, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine has visited three high schools annually at the invitation of local legislatures, except in 2020-21.

At Leavitt, students were divided into three groups who heard appeals regarding a law enforcement officer whose certificate was revoked, a driving under the influence conviction, and a double murder conviction. In Oxford Hills, the calls related to cases of domestic violence assault, unpaid wages following a phishing incident and the sexual assault of an 18-year-old student.

For many students and staff, this was the first time they had witnessed live court proceedings.

Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill introduces herself Wednesday morning to students and faculty gathered in the auditorium at Leavitt Area High School in Turner. The judges were hearing oral arguments in three appeal cases. Next to her are Judge Andrew Mead, in the middle, and Judge Rick Lawrence. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Leavitt senior Lily Anctil said the case was different from what she had seen on TV or real crime shows.

“I thought there would be more conversations back and forth, like fewer questions from the judges,” she said.

Isaiah Davis, a history teacher, said he was surprised at how the conversation had become almost flippant as the judges posed different questions to the lawyers.

“Some (of the judges) kind of agree with him (the lawyer), and some of them totally shut him down, and they keep interrupting him,” Davis said. “It really puts you on the spot for those 15 minutes.”

“I would be so mad if people kept, for example, tearing me apart for asking questions and voicing my (ideas),” Leavitt senior Sawyer Hathaway said.

But experience has shown him just how complex the law is.

“You can see why the arguments can be made because there are technicalities that happen, and there are things that can be admissible and inadmissible,” Hathaway said. “So that shows how detailed the law is. How exceptions can be made.

Over the past week, Leavitt students have studied their assigned case in class, using one-page “brief notes” compiled by high school social studies teachers.

The court briefs, which run to hundreds of pages, are not brief, Davis and Foster commented. One side of the factums prepared by the teachers included the facts of the case, while the other side contained the legal principles in question.

“It’s cool for everyone,” Davis said. “But in this audience today, like, there are a few kids who are going to be lawyers.”

While other students may have sat down uninterested, one or two students might decide to pursue law school in part because of that experience, he explained.

Republican Senator Jeffrey Timberlake of Turner, who invited the court to visit Leavitt, said he thought it was important for students to see for themselves what real court proceedings are like.

“They hear about politics on TV every day now, all day, every day,” Timberlake said. “And you know, you talk about the legislature and the governor, but you don’t hear about the court very often.”

He compared the three branches of government to a three-legged stool: “You need that third leg to balance the other two legs, and without it, that stool topples over.

Students at Oxford and Leavitt high schools will have to wait several months before knowing the outcome of the appeals.

“I feel like when the decisions come down, it’s going to be exciting,” Anctil said.


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