By STEVEN NALLEY
The Mississippi Court of Appeals heard oral arguments for two cases at Mississippi State University’s Hunter Henry Center Tuesday as part of its “Court on the Road” program to provide learning experience to undergraduate pre-law students.
Political Science and Public Administration Department Head K.C. Morrison said “Court on the Road” exposes students to legal procedures unfamiliar to those who do not observe the courtroom process on a daily basis. As a result, he said, students frequently come away from the cases with several questions for professors about the lawyers’ arguments and the rules of the courtroom.
“We are just excited that our students get the opportunity to see the court in action, to meet the judges and to see some actual law students in the process of arguing a case,” Morrison said. “It gives them a real, live sense of what the profession might be like, at least if they are going to be a courtroom lawyer.”
The law students Morrison referred to came to MSU from the University of Mississippi to present arguments on behalf of Darrell Walker, sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for his role in the murder of a home health nurse in 2008. The judges also heard oral arguments at MSU in an appeal from John Daniel Rodgers, who was convicted in 2010 in a home invasion case.
The students were part of Ole Miss’s Criminal Appeals Clinic, and Phillip Broadhead, director of the clinic, joined his students at MSU. Broadhead said eight students join the clinic each semester, and two of them conducted oral arguments for a different case in Jackson in October. The students also work in teams to write four briefs on appellants’ behalf each semester, he said.
“We’ve been involved in over 100 cases since 2002,” Broadhead said. “The last count (showed) 82 third-year students have been through the program.”
One of the appellate judges visiting the campus was Donna Barnes from District 1. She said she and other judges treat these students like attorneys, holding them to the same rules and standards.
“What they do is going to affect (the appellant’s) life,” Barnes said. “It’s a very sobering experience for them, but it’s a very important experience for them to have at the very beginning of their career. “
Barnes said most of the state appeals court’s work is secluded from the public, so the “Court on the Road” program is not only a learning opportunity for students, but also a rare window into the workings of appellate courts for members of the Starkville community.
“Mainly, what we do is read and research and write, and then we have the occasional oral arguments at our building in Jackson,” Barnes said. “We probably hear oral arguments in approximately 10 percent of our cases in the average year ... which means we probably had oral arguments for between 50 and 60 of those.”
Another of the appellate judges visiting was Larry Roberts from District 3. Students are also given the opportunity to ask judges questions after the oral arguments are over. While the judges cannot comment on the cases themselves, they can help students determine their level of interest in the legal profession.
“This does give a unique opportunity for prospective law students to ask generic kinds of questions about the court and how the court functions,” Roberts said.
Barnes and Roberts both said Tuesday marked their second visit to MSU through “Court on the Road.” Barnes said working with MSU is consistently a good experience, especially because of the optimism young law students exhibit.
“They have not been jaded in any way by law school and learning what the rules are,” Barnes said. “You really have people who are interested in helping others, ... doing public work and helping out their fellow man. Everyone’s still full of enthusiasm and ideals at this age, and that’s very refreshing.”