URBANA — The counsel representing plaintiffs and defendants arguing Friday afternoon in Courtroom J at the Champaign County Courthouse were far younger than in the standard court case.
But after spending a week studying law, students at Campus Middle School for Girls argued cases involving family law, gender discrimination, contract law and a criminal case in front of Judge Holly Clemons.
The week of President's Day, students at Campus Middle School for Girls study one subject in depth. The school calls it Forum Week.
The students, who are in sixth through eighth grades, spent this week learning from attorneys and law students about the law, and were divided into groups — "firms" — of four to argue a particular side in one of four fictional cases.
Seventh-grader Sara Morisetty said she was surprised by how much effort and time it took to put a case together, and seventh-grader Laura Krasa agreed.
"I think it was, at first, hard to find laws that applied," Krasa said, but it got easier as the week went on.
In the case Krasa worked on, a fictional 12-year-old transgendered boy was suing Campus Middle School for Girls, for denying him admission. She was a member of the firm representing the school.
"It's kind of weird, defending my school," she said.
Ramona Sullivan, whose daughter, Kat Williams, is a seventh-grader at Campus Middle School for Girls, said it was a good fit to have members of the East Central Illinois Women Attorneys Association help the school's students learn more about law.
Sullivan is a lawyer at Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation.
She said the Campus Middle School students became truly invested in the outcomes of their cases.
"They really want to win for their clients," she said.
That was evident when seventh-grader Bailey Wendt was describing her case — representing a woman who'd just served time in prison and wanted custody of her child, who had been living with an aunt who wanted to adopt.
"We're going to get that kid back," Wendt said.
Even though the students argued different sides of cases, they said it didn't get too contentious.
"It's fun," Morisetty said.
"At the end of the day, we go back and talk about everything," Williams said.
They also learned about family law, criminal law, juvenile delinquency, the fourth and fifth amendments, Miranda rights and what's admissible in court during the week, Williams said. They toured the federal county courthouses.
While arguing in front of Clemons, who donned a robe to hear the cases, the students pointed out laws that supported their sides, as well as prior court decisions.
One firm even quoted from the fourth amendment while arguing that a teacher in a classroom who suspected forbidden food — and also found marijuana — in a student's backpack had probable cause.
While Clemons didn't rule or give an opinion on any of the girls' cases, she told them from the bench about her experiences with family law, similar to the case involving the aunt who wanted to adopt the child she'd cared for for years.
"Those are some of the toughest decisions the court makes," Clemons said.
Clemons explained to the students that any trial would include many more facts and more background information.
She congratulated the students on their work in making their cases and raising interesting issues on all sides.
"Very seldom are things that one-sided," Clemons said.