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Courts and Classes are Closed, But Judges Make Virtual House Calls During COVID-19 Crisis

Schools and courthouses may be closed because of the coronavirus, but judges and court system professionals are making virtual house calls to bring civics education to home-bound students in New Hampshire and Missouri and programs are underway in other states. The Second Circuit is providing robust online resources that teachers, parents, and others can use in the distance learning environment.

Portsmouth High School senior Luke Freeman has a question for Chief Judge Landya McCafferty, District of New Hampshire, during her distance learning sentencing activity.

Portsmouth High School senior Luke Freeman has a question for Chief Judge Landya McCafferty, District of New Hampshire, during her distance learning sentencing activity “You Be the Judge.”

“The need for civics doesn’t diminish at critical times in our history,” said Chief Judge Landya McCafferty, of the District of New Hampshire. “As busy as we are during this disruption, civics is still a priority, and school closures create opportunities to strengthen our partnership with teachers, whose burden is even heavier than usual at this time.”

After piloting her “You Be the Judge” program using distance learning technology, McCafferty invited Judge N. William Delker, of the state court system, to involve his judicial colleagues in the effort to reach rural and urban students throughout New Hampshire. The New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education is matching judges with interested schools.

The first round of the pilot was so well received that McCafferty got fan mail and a request for college and career advice.

“I'm so grateful for your willingness to answer my questions! I have the greatest respect for you and your profession,” wrote Portsmouth High School senior Luke Freeman. “I would love to learn more about your experience in the law ….” McCafferty responded with answers and encouragement the same day.

In the Second Circuit, where in-person classroom visits by judges have been suspended due to the pandemic, the Justice for All Committee has reached out to New York City public schools with an online package of original resources for distance learning that will take students through the rest of the school year and beyond. Teaching materials are drawn from the Circuit’s Justice for All website.

“To support remote learning in schools throughout the Second Circuit, I am proud to share the educational resources that Justice for All has prepared for the celebration of this year’s national Law Day theme, which is commemorating the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution,” said Second Circuit Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann on the release of the committee’s new resources on its website.

In St. Louis, Rachel Marshall, education coordinator for the Eighth Circuit and the Eastern District of Missouri, has replaced onsite tours and activities in The Judicial Learning Center of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse with a webinar series. Featured presenters are judges, public defenders, probation and pretrial officers, and representatives of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals who talk about the justice system from the perspective of their roles. They also share their career paths with the students.

“What is a typical day like for you?” and “How is COVID-19 affecting your duties?” were popular questions from the participants. Most students were in grades six through 12 from public and private schools, and the local homeschooling community. 

McCafferty fielded questions throughout her “You Be the Judge” interactive sentencing program for high school students in Portsmouth and Concord to teach them about the goals of sentencing and the factors that are considered when determining a sentence.

 “The students are fully engaged, which makes the program very rewarding,” McCafferty said. “And the teachers, who are working hard in the distance learning environment, deserve to have someone come in and carry a class at this difficult time.”

During McCafferty’s online interaction with Portsmouth High School seniors, teacher Sam Tombarelli assigned the students in real time to virtual, small-group rooms – one for student public defenders and one for student prosecutors.  In their groups, students worked out their sentencing recommendations based on factors they found in a written scenario. When the students rejoined the judge, they presented their recommendations and used civil discourse skills to debate the sentence.

"Chief Judge McCafferty made the study of our judicial system come alive for my students,” said Tombarelli. “They learned through experiencing what it is like – from the perspective of a judge. This format completely engaged my students. I am so grateful to Judge McCafferty for this power-learning opportunity!"

Just a few days earlier at Exeter High School in Exeter, New Hampshire, the students of Aaron Blais used the same scenario. They took a pre-test at the beginning of the virtual experience and then took it, again, at the end of the program to get a picture of what they learned. During the Q&A part of the online event, a student asked McCafferty if she had “ever despised a defendant.” The answer? No, never.

In St. Louis, where Marshall has been hosting distance learning sessions several times a week since March, presenters briefly introduce their work and their responsibilities in the justice system. Students submit questions in advance or in the chat box during the program, and Marshall reads the questions to the presenters.

Highlights of the St. Louis series, so far, have included: U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Clark giving a virtual tour of his courtroom; a probation/pretrial officer sharing her career path, which started in advertising and shifted to law enforcement because she wanted more meaningful work; an assistant federal public defender talking about the importance of credibility and honest dealings with others; and U.S. Magistrate Judge David D. Noce tracing his pathway to the bench from studying to become a priest, to attending law school, to joining the military on his way to becoming a judge.

Feedback from participants in the Eastern District of Missouri and the District of New Hampshire showed that students were interested and impacted by their interactions with the judges and other professionals. Programs in both districts will continue through the end of the school year.

2nd Circuit Resources

Resources designed for Law Day/Month and beyond are available on the Second Circuit’s Justice for All website and include:

Missouri Resources

For information about the Missouri webinar series, contact Rachel Marshall and visit the Judicial Learning Center’s website for distance learning resources.

New Hampshire Resources

For information about the program in New Hampshire, contact Chief Judge Landya McCafferty.

National Resources

Resources for year-round civics education learning are available in the educational resources section and include:

For information, contact Rebecca Fanning, national educational outreach manager at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Related Topics: Public Education