Blinn College students and the general public had the opportunity to witness the Texas 10th Court of Appeals hear oral arguments on two cases Wednesday, then the audience asked the justices questions.
Hosted by the Blinn Legal Assistant Program and the Legal Assistant Student Organization, Wednesday’s opportunity marked the eighth time the court has visited Blinn College. Chief Justice Tom Gray was joined by new justices Matt Johnson and Steve Smith this year to hear oral arguments on two cases.
Gray explained at the beginning of the day that Blinn College is in a unique position being situated in Bryan rather than College Station because the Texas Constitution limits the court to sitting in the county seat in one of the 18 counties included in the 10th Court of Appeals.
Wednesday’s cases consisted of a pre-trial discovery proceeding related to a collision between Elizabeth and Jarrod McClendon in their Tesla Model Y vehicle and a driver for National Carriers, Inc., and a criminal case of Kevin Wayne Deggs v. The State of Texas, which was heard in the Brazos County 272nd District Court.
Smith, who began his appointment to the Place 3 seat in September after serving as judge of the 361st State District Court in Bryan, said the “off-campus” visits gives people a chance to see the appellate process.
“A lot of people will have been either on a jury or been, sadly, in some kind of litigation themselves or have just gone to watch a trial in their hometown courthouse, and they see that part of the legal system – the trial phase of the system – but very, very few of them actually ever see how an appeals court works,” he said, adding it is important for people to understand how the judiciary branch of the government operates.
His hope is that the people who attended understand a little more how the process works after seeing oral arguments. The Waco-based court will then continue their review before issuing a decision.
“I think it’s valuable for them to see the inner workings of it and have the opportunity to go observe and either, one, confirm their decision of what they want to do or, two, saying, ‘You know, maybe I think I’ll do something else,’” Smith said.
Robert Stanberry, coordinator of Blinn’s paralegal and criminal justice program in Bryan, said it makes the opportunity to see the law in action more exciting that they are real cases.
He called it a partnership between the law and education. Some students return even after graduating because of the impact it made on their careers.
Emily Exley, who works in family law, was the LASO chair in 2017 when two former Texas Supreme Court justices were on either side of a case, and said the experience of sitting in the audience when the justices visit Blinn College is what encourages her to stay in the legal field.
She said it inspires students and encourages them to get engaged and ask questions they may not feel comfortable asking in a traditional classroom setting.
“This opens up an opportunity for people to ask questions that they couldn’t normally ask and to get answers that they wouldn’t normally get,” she said.
Elisabeth Kuciemba, who is currently completing the paralegal program at Blinn, said she was grateful to have the opportunity to attend in person, and it was especially impactful to see the attorneys argue the Deggs v. State of Texas case.
“To be there in person and to see how the justices conduct themselves and the lawyers, it makes it more real,” she said. “It’s an actual process that happens every day, and it’s not divorced from the everyday person.”
The experience has confirmed for her that she wants to continue with the program and continue pursuing a career in the legal arena either in a trial court or the District Attorney’s office. It also taught her that while she can be passionate when arguing, emotion must be left out of legal arguments.
Ron Quiram, a government instructor at Blinn, invited his students to attend the oral arguments to see government in action, saying nothing makes government more real than watching three justices walk into a room and hear oral arguments of two real cases.
“Government is not a ‘was’; it’s an ‘is’ or an ‘is going,’” he said, “so anytime you can see an ‘is’ versus a ‘was,’ I’m always in favor of it.”
After hearing the oral arguments in the morning, the justices returned to the dais after lunch to answer questions from students and the public.
In answering a question about their influences in pursuing a career in law, Gray encouraged people to find something they enjoy and to pursue a career because they want to, not for anyone else.
“It’s got to be something that you want, that you enjoy and when you find that career, when you find that thing whatever it is, you will be able to make a living at it,” he said. “… If you don’t find something that you enjoy to do every day, every day will be miserable. I cannot encourage you enough to keep looking until you find what that is.”
Smith encouraged anyone interested in going to law school to be proficient in English, history and “somewhat proficient” in business or accounting; however, it is not necessary to have a bachelor’s degree in any of those areas.
“You can go to law school with any degree,” he said. He entered the University of Texas School of Law with a degree in music education, while the people next to him had degrees in psychology and business.
Johnson added students who complete law school do not have to make a career in law.
“Law school opens up a lot of doors,” he said, encouraging the students in the room to keep their horizons open.