Georgia Court of Appeals opens court at RiverCenter for viewing by local students

Olivia Yepez and Chuck Williams

5 hours before

COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) – As of Wednesday, April 12, local high school students found themselves on a field trip into an atypical legal environment. The Georgia Court of Appeals converted the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts’ main stage into a makeshift courtroom.

This unorthodox court hearing venue was chosen as part of the appeals court’s effort to make its work more accessible to young students in communities outside of Atlanta.

“We have courts that do the public’s business in the public,” said Presiding Justice Ben Land, a native of Columbus.

When Presiding Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes asked him where the Court of Appeals should hold its annual public hearing for 2023, he had no hesitation in suggesting Fountain City, according to the Land.

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As more than 700 local high school students flocked to the theater and chatted with one another, Georgia Circuit Chief Justice Brian Rickman told WRBL he hoped the event “ignited a spark in some of these young people” and some basic civic education would convey to the high school students.

Before the hearings, Barnes addressed the importance of showing students the activities of the Court of Appeals and said she wanted to show them that an appeal is not just an abstract concept but something real. This view was echoed by Presiding Judge Christopher J. McFadden, who was present at the event even though he was not a member of the jury for the hearings.

“These are real cases of real and significant importance to the parties,” McFadden said. He stressed that he wanted high school students to see the application of the law based on reason.

Students enter the RiverCenter to see the Georgia State Court of Appeals. Photo provided by Olivia Yepez. Students fill the RiverCenter Theater before court hearings. Photo provided by Olivia Yepez. Proceedings in the Georgia State Circuit Court of Appeals begin. Photo provided by Olivia Yepez.

Jakiah Allen, a sophomore at Jordan Vocational High School, said she was a bit scared before coming to the event because she expected a boring lecture, but that quickly changed.

Allen said it was encouraging to see the legal process working. She said, “Well, after walking out of here today, I actually want to be a judge now.”

Another student, Kalin Zavala, a freshman at Jordan Vocational High School, said, “It’s interesting to me how this all works and how complicated it is.” -minute speeches for the judges grabbed what other students repeated.

“I think seeing the work of the attorneys in their job has really put into perspective how much they invest in their job and how much they have to prepare to speak before the judges,” said Rania Haque, a ninth grader at Columbus High School . She mentioned that seeing the lawyers work in real life is very different from watching the law practice on a staged TV show.

Om Patel, another Columbus High School ninth grader, said he found the atmosphere of the occasion a bit austere, although there were also emotional moments. Patel described his experience observing the Court of Appeals proceedings as “surreal” and overall positive.

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The cases were evaluated by a jury that included Land, Barnes and Rickman. As proceedings began on the first of three cases scheduled to be heard for the occasion, Land stopped the presenting attorney to ask him to clarify the details for the benefit of the student audience who were hearing about some of what was going on ahead of the event would see had been informed by judges of the Court of Appeal at their schools.

The Georgia State Court of Appeals was established in 1906 and is based in Atlanta. Cases are brought before the Court of Appeal for the Court of Appeal judges to reconsider the decision of a lower court if a party disagrees with the original decision.