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Students step into robes of Supreme Court judges

Three of the most important cases currently before the United States Supreme Court – dealing with gay marriage, obtaining blood samples from suspected drunk drivers and legal suits against the government – will be argued by Treasure Valley attorneys before a mock court of College of Idaho students next week.

Nine students, each playing the role of a particular current justice on the court, will barrage local attorneys arguing the cases with questions during the mock court sessions Jan. 14 and 15 on campus. Oral arguments will begin both days at 1:20 p.m. in the Sterry Hall Board Room (3rd floor) and last until approximately 2:20 on Jan. 14 and 3:30 on Jan. 15. Arguments are open to the public.

Kerry Hunter, professor of political economy, said he started the course 18 years ago as a way to introduce students to the Supreme Court. 

“Students learn the politics necessary to get and keep a majority opinion, they learn that sometimes you cannot write precisely what you want, that you have to compromise in order to keep the votes needed,” Hunter said. “It also gives them insight into how the court is a political body, that justices are not blindfolded, objective distributers of justice, that their political views really do matter.”

Hunter noted that the course has annually attracted some of The College of Idaho’s most outstanding students, with past participants winning Rhodes and Marshall scholarships (including Amanda Frickle, a 2012 C of I graduate and Rhodes Scholar) and 2012 Truman Scholar winner and C of I senior Tyler Hatch participating on this year’s court.

Six C of I alumni who are practicing attorneys in the Treasure Valley will make arguments before the mock court: Jennifer Shrum and Mark Coonts on Monday will argue Hollingsworth v. Perry, concerning a California law banning gay marriage; Joshua Taylor and Andrew Ellis on Monday will argue Missouri v. McNeely, a case asking whether a law enforcement officer may obtain a nonconsensual blood sample from a drunk driver based upon the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream; and on Tuesday Joseph Meier and Kirk Houston will argue Levin v. United States, a case asking whether suit may be brought against the United States for battery committed to a civilian by military medical personnel acting within the scope of employment.

Like actual Supreme Court justices, the workload is heavy for students taking the course. Hunter said that during the first week of the course, each student must gain a good appreciation for how the justice he or she is representing thinks and votes as well as read hundreds of pages of briefs before oral arguments begin. Following arguments, the students have just two weeks to write opinions for each of the cases.

Shrum, a 2008 C of I graduate who played the role of Justice Stephen Breyer when she took the course, said the experience introduced her to the rigors of the legal profession.

“Mock Court involved studying and understanding not only my own case but the cases that came before mine,” Shrum said. “Preparation is something that I have had to apply in my own career. Preparation includes studying my case, those cases that have come before mine, and the judge that will preside over my case.”

Though challenging, Shrum said the Mock Court also was enjoyable and recalled using stick figures on a chalk board as a method of explaining a paternity case she presented to the class.

“I feel both nervous and excited to take part as an attorney arguing before the Mock Court,” Shrum said. “I am nervous because I know that the C of I students are both smart and challenging. I am excited because I carried my Mock Court experience with me through law school and I know that it is a memorable class.”

While mock court classes are taught at other colleges, Hunter said he’s unaware of any other courses where students play the role of justices and write opinions that reflect the views of the actual Supreme Court justices.

“We are able to do this kind of thing here because we have excellent students who are well prepared in other classes to think critically and make reasoned arguments,” Hunter said. “It’s really impressive to see our students go toe-to-toe with practicing attorneys and hold their own.”

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. It has a century-old tradition of educating some of the most accomplished graduates in Idaho, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three Marshall Scholars, and another ten Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College is located on a beautiful campus in Caldwell, Idaho. Its distinctive PEAK curriculum challenges students to attain competencies in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field, enabling them to graduate with an academic major and three minors in four years. For more information on The College of Idaho, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.