The stage in The University of Texas-Pan American Student Union Theater became a lively courtroom March 3 when the Texas Supreme Court came to the campus to hear oral arguments in two civil cases.
An audience of UTPA and GEAR UP high school students, faculty, Rio Grande Valley lawyers and other community members had the opportunity to view firsthand, rather than reading from a textbook page, how the Court operates. During the hearings they heard rapid fire exchanges of questions and answers between the lawyers and the nine-member court, a dialogue used by the Court to help them render decisions that can impact Texans for many years to come.
A constitutional amendment passed in 1997 allows the Court to conduct business outside Austin. The last time they visited UTPA was in 2001. The visit this year was requested by UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen and supported by the Hidalgo County Bar Association.
Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson said the Court, which hears about 100 to 160 cases a year, welcomes their occasional trips to hear cases outside their Austin courtroom.
"No experience, for the Court and we hope for the public, quite matches demonstrating the Court's major role in hearing cases argued before student audiences," said Jefferson, who was appointed in 2001. "But these visits also allow us to talk with students, answer questions about the process they get to see live, and maybe bring a new appreciation for the legal process and its place in our democracy."
A summary of the cases prepared by the court was distributed to the more than 400 attendees as well as an introduction to court protocol and procedures before the hearings began. A question and answer session followed the court proceedings.
In a hearing on a worker's compensation case the issues were whether Texas law requires a direct injury to feet and hands in order to support benefits for permanent loss of feet and hands alleged as a result of a back, neck, shoulder and hip injury. At issue in the other case was whether the trial court acted within its discretion by splitting a condemnation action into separate actions when the property owners subdivided the original tract after the original condemnation was filed.
Edinburg High School senior Steve Guzman was among approximately 50 students and mock trial team participants who attended from his school and Edcouch-Elsa High School. Guzman said the opportunity to see the Court in person and learn how it operates was a great experience.
"It's something I definitely never thought I'd get to see. I really never knew much about them, but now, after watching what it all entails, as well as my time in the high school mock trial team, I'm developing a very strong interest in the legal field and a possible profession as a lawyer," Guzman said.
Although her mother is a lawyer, Ashley Rocha, also a senior mock trial team member at Edinburg High School, said she was surprised to see that it was different from the court procedures that she was used to.
While in the Rio Grande Valley, the justices also attended a luncheon March 2 with University faculty and students from the Pre-Law Society and other student organizations. Later, six of the justices broke into teams of two to visit three classrooms of UTPA students studying criminal justice and U.S. and Texas government and politics. There, they shared information on the structure of the Court, its jurisdiction, how it differs from trial courts and court processes before answering questions.
"We take cases that present raw important issues that are important to jurisprudence ... the issues affect lots of people in important ways," said Justice Dale Wainwright, who was elected to the Court in 2002. He went on to describe the Court's make up as the most diverse in the country having two African-Americans, two Hispanics, and two women. He also said that only about 50 percent of their decisions are unanimous.
"When the cases get to conference, there are no justices who are shrinking violets. We have strong opinions on what the law says," Wainwright said.
Justice Don R. Willet, who was appointed to the Court in 2005, told the class that he hopes trips like this help demystify the Court to the public.
"We want the Court to be more accessible and understandable," he said.
Willet described to students how he came to be a lawyer and now a justice. He said he grew up in a town of 32 people and neither of his parents finished high school. His interest in the law first developed at age 6 when his 40-year-old father died without a will.
"I saw what a profound and lifelong impact that had on my mom and my older sister," said Willett, who went on to earn his law degree and work for the Texas attorney general and also in the administration of former President George W. Bush before becoming a Texas Supreme Court justice.
Wainwright said the Court came to UTPA to not only educate students about the Texas legal system, what types of cases they consider and how they do their job, but also to tell them that the "sky's the limit."
"We want to let the students know that they can be on the Supreme Court one day or even higher. We want to inspire them to achieve their dreams," he said.
The arguments were streamed live and video webcasts of the oral arguments are available on a website provided by St. Mary's University. For more information on the Texas Supreme Court, go to their website.