A crowd of students watched, uncharacteristically hushed, cell phones stashed away, with copies of case briefs in front of them as three black-robed judges presided over Tennessee Court Criminal of Appeals in Harvey Auditorium Tuesday.
Students watched lawyers present appeals for criminal convictions. After listening to each lawyer’s arguments, judges asked questions and challenged them on the issues addressed. This is the first time Union hosted the court, and students were encouraged to come and watch.
“Most of the general public doesn’t get to see this kind of argument,” said Michael Scholl, one of the defense attorneys. “You get to see the true, fine-tune legal issues that occur.”
“It was more laid back than I was expecting,” said Jordan Sellars, junior history major. “I’ve always been interested in the legal system, and this is the first time I’ve ever gotten to see it in action…I’ve always imagined court to be a much more intense and formal experience, so that surprised me.”
Scholl and Jonathan Wardle, assistant attorney general, who represented the state for the cases, said appeal court is much less dramatic than a trial.
“[In a trial] You’re playing to a jury, you’re playing to a judge, you’re playing to the opposing council, you’ve got the witness on the stand who’s telling a story…cross-examination can be fabulous…that’s fun to watch,” said Wardle. “I have to tone down my tone on appeal a lot.”
Because appellate judges prefer a more reasoned, moderate discussion, the lawyers have to restrain from the theatrics that may win a jury over to their side in a trial.
“I had to hold onto the podium to keep myself from pacing,” said Scholl, miming grabbing the podium with both hands.
Wardle and Scholl acknowledged that the portrayal of court room on TV has a large impact on how the average American imagines the court system works. Wardle explained that this view of the court system is convoluted because the entire process is condensed into one episode and highly dramatized.
“There’s been a lot in the media with Making of a Murderer and some of these other series about true crime and the fact is that most Americans don’t know how the criminal system works, which is kind of unfortunate,” Wardle said. “Some of the new shows are a little better at showing how it really works…most of the work is boring, but what underlies it is integral to our system.”
Scholl said a benefit of witnessing the court procedure is seeing how civil the process is and how much respect the lawyers and judges have for each other. Wardle agreed, comparing attorneys to NFL players who remain friendly even when playing against each other. He hopes students learned the courts are accessible and the court system is efficient.
“The judges are remarkably interested in getting fairness,” he said. “And that’s hard because they have to be fair in each individual case, but they also have to be fair to the system. If you focus too much on each case, the system will break down. If you focus too much on the system, you’re going to get a lot of unfair individual cases.”
“I gained a new appreciation for our courts,” said Hannah Willis, junior accounting major. “Attending the Court of Appeals was not about seeing who won or lost like a TV show, but seeing how our justice system seeks truth. It is amazing to see the amount of hours and hard work that is put into each case…it was a phenomenal opportunity to see hands-on experience of how our legal system works.”