DANVILLE — While Danville Area Community College students think that Chuck Hantz is a top-notch political science instructor, they said his lecture on the judicial system earlier this week couldn't compete with the follow-up lesson.
That lesson came courtesy of the Fourth District Appellate Court, which held oral arguments on two cases at the community college on Wednesday morning.
"It's one thing to learn about this in class. It's another to actually be able to sit in and see the process firsthand," sophomore Taylor Hawthorne said, adding he and his classmates were able to gain a deeper understanding of the legal process from the unique opportunity.
This was the first time the Fourth District Appellate Court heard oral arguments at a community college in its 30-county jurisdiction. It has done so at Illinois State University, Quincy University and at the University of Illinois College of Law.
The Appellate Court in other districts also have heard oral arguments at law schools, universities and colleges across the state, to give students who are studying law or law enforcement a chance to see the real-world application of the concepts they learn about in class, as well as to interest other students in those careers.
"We come out of the courthouse to give you an opportunity to understand how the court works, what we do and how we do it in the interest of justice," Fourth District Appellate Court Clerk Carla Bender told the 50 or so students who attended the first session in the DACC board room at Vermilion Hall.
"These cases are real, and real decisions will be entered," she continued, adding students can read the decisions in Wednesday's cases once they're posted on the website at http://www.state.il.us/court/appellatecourt.
That morning, Justices Thomas R. Appleton, M. Carol Pope and Lisa Holder White, who made up the three-member panel, had a criminal case and a civil case on their docket.
In the first case, a defendant who was convicted of possession of a controlled substance is appealing the trial court's decision to not suppress testimony from an Illinois State Police trooper about the traffic stop that led to the charge. He claims he didn't get a fair trial and is asking the court to overturn his conviction and grant him a new trial.
The other, a Sangamon County case, involves a woman claiming she was suspended from a nursing job due to her sexual orientation, disabilities and age and subsequently fired because of her sexual orientation. She is appealing the trial court's decision to dismiss the disability claims and its ruling that the others should be taken before an administrative panel.
Students said they learned a lot about the Appellate Court process including that most of the judges' work takes place in chambers, reviewing the trial court record, attorneys' briefs and the statutes and later researching and writing their decisions.
The part that does happen in the courtroom is much different than what happens at the trial court level. First the appellant then the appellee each get 20 minutes to present arguments, then the appellant gets to give a five-minute rebuttal. During the arguments, the judges pepper them with questions or comments.
Later, Pope said that's pretty typical of oral arguments, which ordinarily are heard in a courtroom in Springfield. What isn't typical: hearing them before a large crowd that also included lawyers, current and former judges and DACC officials, who packed the meeting room.
"We usually have only one person in the audience other than the interested parties," Pope said with a laugh, nodding at Bender.
Students also said the proceedings were a good lesson in communication and oral presentation, and will help them as they prepare to debate a controversial topic in Ryan Wyckoff's group discussions class.
"They really knew their stuff," freshman Kendra Carlton said. "When they were asked a question, they had an answer immediately. That shows me I need to research everything I'm going to talk about and just be an expert on my topic. That way if someone throws me a question, it won't catch me off guard."
Following the last session, the judges answered a few questions from the audience at a luncheon, sponsored by the college and Vermilion County Bar Association.
When dual-enrollment student Callie Parks asked what brought them to their field, Pope said she got interested in practicing law in college, while Appleton, who is next in line to become the Appellate Court chief judge, said he knew at a much younger age.
"It's the only thing I ever wanted to be," said Appleton, who recalled bringing a copy of the Illinois compiled statutes to his third-grade class and reading up on the Constitution.
Holder White, who was seated in February, said she was a middle child who always "wanted to argue and persuade people to see it my way (and) I've always been the type of person who likes to help people. You really have the opportunity to do that as an attorney and judge. People feel good when they feel they've gotten justice and have their day in court."