WHEELING – Earlier this month, my wife and I accompanied a group of homeschool students to Independence Hall in Wheeling where the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments in two cases.
The large convention hall on the third floor had been outfitted with a dais where the five justices could sit. In stark contrast with the 19th century decor, the room was filled with cameras, microphones and other telltale signs of 21st century technology. More than 200 students were in attendance.
As I expected, the questioning was lively. I had told my students to expect a “hot” bench. The justices tend to be actively involved in arguments, asking questions and pressing their points. Even with my warning, I think the students were surprised by how aggressive the questioning was. The message was loud and clear. Appellate advocacy is not for the timid. Not only must attorneys have a good command of their case, they must also be quick on their feet and fearless in the face of relentless questioning!
Two cases were argued. The first was a kidnapping case in which a domestic violence worker testified as an expert. Because the victim had opportunities to escape, but did not, the state called this expert to explain why she remained afraid of the defendant. The issue: did this expert vouch for the credibility of the state witnesses or otherwise invade the fact-finding role of the jury?
The second case was a personal injury case. The argument focused on the defendant’s delay in producing information regarding surveillance. The plaintiff actually called the private investigator who conducted the surveillance as a fact witness. The issue: was this a violation of the work product privilege?
After the arguments, the attorneys took the dais and fielded questions from the students. These ranged from practical questions (e.g., how much time does it take to prepare for argument?) to questions of trial tactics and strategy. It was a rare opportunity for the students to question the attorneys while the arguments were still fresh in their minds.
Thereafter, we were treated to a luncheon hosted by the county bar. In this relaxed atmosphere, we were able to mingle and speak with the justices and other court personnel. Joining us at our table was Edythe Gaiser, the deputy clerk who is responsible for overseeing the LAWS project. We were also joined by Justice Beth Walker, who shared some of her own experiences and encouraged our homeschoolers to pursue their dreams. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with both of them.
All in all, I think our students were enthralled by the experience. I could see it in their eyes and hear it in their never-ending chatter. Watching attorneys arguing before the state’s highest court is not only educational, it’s also entertaining. I think our students had only one disappointment – they’ll have to wait for weeks to learn the outcome. But even that’s a part of the process. As invested as the attorneys are in the outcome of their own cases, they’ll have to wait too. And for them, it’ll seem like an eternity.
Last thing: I promised to let you know how our students would have voted in these two cases. If they’re right, I see two affirmances coming in the future. But only time will tell…
Stoneking is an attorney with Bordas & Bordas in Wheeling, and he writes a blog about the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.