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Schuyler Central High School students left their gymnasium on Friday, Nov. 2, with a new perspective on the Nebraska justice system.

“I thought it was interesting to see how cases went and if this ever happened to you, you can get the feel of it,” said junior Tamara Witzel.

Schuyler Central High School was one in three schools in the state selected this year to be part of the Nebraska Supreme Court’s ongoing outreach and education efforts.

Nebraska Chief Justice Mike Heavican, a graduate of Schuyler Central High School, said the overall goal was to educate students on the legal system and profession, which are important to maintain democracy in the state.

Inside the school’s gymnasium, students had the firsthand opportunity to witness oral arguments on ongoing cases from Box, Butte and Scotts Bluff counties. These cases were selected to demonstrate the variety of legal arguments presented to the court regularly.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for our kids to see the actual court system working,” Principal Stephen Grammer said. “A lot of times in school, we read about it and have someone tell us about it, but we don’t actually see how it works so it was a great opportunity. It’s a good learning experience.”

Grammer said his high school was the smallest school visited by the Nebraska Supreme Court. Presentations were also held at Grand Island High School and Millard North High School.

“So, if (students) think about being a lawyer, they can kind of see how stuff goes and how they can talk in front of judges and how it works,” Witzel said.

Chief U.S. District Judge John Gerrard, another Schuyler Central High School alumnus, provided a brief explanation of the justice system and introduced the cases.

The judging panel consisted of Heavican and six Nebraska Supreme Court Justices: Lindsey Miller-Lerman, William Cassel, Jonathan Papik, Stephanie Stacy, Jeffrey Funke and John Freudenberg, representing the six appellate court judicial districts of the state.

The first case students witnessed involved a man who worked for a ranch in Alliance was trampled by a cow after a dog owned by the rancher nipped at the cow’s leg. The question for the judges: While dogs are considered property of their owners, is that owner liable for damages caused by the dog’s actions even if they weren’t directed specifically at the person injured?  It was followed by another case regarding  a woman who’d been stopped by a Nebraska State Patrol trooper in Gering argued the smell of marijuana is no longer enough to give law enforcement officers cause to search a car, since she was close to Colorado, where marijuana is legal. The smell, her attorney argued, could have remained from when she’d smoked it legally across the state border.

When junior Jelmen Orellana read about the dog case, he admitted that he was not impressed until the attorneys begin their presentations, which sparked his interest. Orellana said he started to realize how the outcome of the judges’ decisions could impact his life, especially because he’s thinking of owning a dog one day.

“You might have a dog one day that ends up doing something that might harm somebody else,” Orellana said. “So you ask yourself, ‘If this does (happens), am I the one in trouble for it?’”

Grammer said the presentations were also a good way for students to understand that there are always two sides to the same coin, especially when it comes to issues that are important to them like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

The floor was open to the audience for questions at the end of the presentations. Students took the opportunity to ask hard-hitting questions like “How do judges set aside their emotions when making decisions?” and “Do you think DACA is a breach of the executive order?”

Ultimately, students were not the only ones who enjoyed the experience.

It was a nostalgic moment for Heavican having the opportunity to return to his old stomping grounds.

“We chose this particular high school because the (Nebraska chief justice) went to high school here, so that’s why,” Heavican said. “It’s good to be back.”

Cassel said the experience was a breath of fresh air for the associate justices, whose workdays are mostly spent inside the Nebraska State Capitol Building in Lincoln. Because of that, he said justices enjoy spending time outside their normal setting socializing with the general public.

“We are enjoying ourselves,” Cassel said. “It’s a fun occasion for us.”

The Journal-Star contributed to this report.

Natasya Ong is a reporter for the Schuyler Sun. Reach her via email at natasya.ong@lee.net.

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