By STEVEN NALLEY
The Mississippi Court of Appeals’ Court on the Road program brought three of the court’s judges to Mississippi State University’s Hunter Henry Center Thursday to hear oral arguments for the learning benefit of students and community members alike.
The panel present at MSU included judges Jimmy Maxwell, Eugene Fair and Larry Roberts, who heard a criminal appeal from Neshoba County and a civil appeal from DeSoto County. Roberts said all 10 appellate court judges are needed to actually decide on an appeal in Jackson, but they can subdivide into three-person panels and hold public hearings for oral arguments outside Jackson.
“Being able to conduct (these hearings) at different locations in the state makes it convenient for members of the general public or students to see what the court does,” Roberts said. “I think there is a view by many that judges on the court of appeals or in the supreme court sit in some ivory tower building in Jackson, not exposed to the general public. This is a wonderful educational opportunity for interested students or citizens to observe the court of appeals in action, to see what we do.”
Fair said the number of stops on the Court on the Road tour increased this year from four to seven at the behest of Chief Judge Joe Lee.
“Normally, it’s the three major universities, plus the Mississippi College law school,” Fair said. “This is really good for people who have an interest in learning more about the judicial process. I think, of the three branches of government, (the one people are least familiar with) is the judicial branch. Most people that become involved in the court system become involved in it unintentionally.”
Fair said this is also the first Court on the Road tour in many years to include stops that are not necessarily tied to any specific institution of higher learning. He said the program also attracts high school government classes, including 100 high school students who came to the tour stop at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville. Beverly Kraft, public information officer with the Mississippi Supreme Court, said Court on the Road helps schools that do not have the benefit of proximity to Jackson.
“A program like this puts it in reach of a high school field trip,” Kraft said. “We have field trips come to Jackson, but this makes it more accessible.”
Whit Waide, faculty advisor for MSU’s Pre-Law Society, said the Court on the Road program has maintained popularity every year and is well attended. He said many college students are hungry for the type of real-world experience it offers.
“I’m a big believer in exposing college kids to the real world,” Waide said. “I think we don’t do that enough in universities. That’s not to say classroom education doesn’t have merit … (but) anytime we’re able to expose students to the real world, I jump at the chance. I’m very grateful that the court has this program. We hope to have many years of the court of appeals on campus.”
Mississippi College School of Law Dean Jim Rosenblatt said Court on the Road gives students at multiple universities a taste of the real-world legal experience students can access every day at Mississippi College, with the campus located within walking distance of the Mississippi Supreme Court building and the federal courthouse. Through such programs, he said, MSU has built a strong relationship with Mississippi College.
“Professor Waide’s pre-law program does an excellent job of preparing students for law school, and last year, MSU recently became our largest feeder school,” Rosenblatt said. “More students came to us through MSU than any of the other 31 schools we have represented. We have a special affinity for MSU Bulldogs.”
Maxwell said he is grateful to Waide and MSU President Mark Keenum for their hospitality. He said he wishes the Court on the Road Program had existed when he was a college student.
“I think the Court on the Road program gives students an opportunity to see what goes on behind the curtains of justice without having to travel to Jackson,” Maxwell said. “Most people aren’t familiar with the everyday workings of an appellate court unless you’re a lawyer. This gives you a bird’s-eye view.”