The Yale Law School auditorium was transformed Friday from a classroom into a courtroom.
Students were privy to up-close Connecticut Supreme Court action when it set up shop at the Law School, part of a decades-old program that takes the court on the road to universities and high schools across the state.
“[The session] provides an opportunity for students to observe first-hand how the appellate process works and to ask questions of the attorneys involved with the cases,” Chief Justice Chase Rogers said before the court was called into session.
The session gave law students, some of whom were required to attend, the opportunity to watch oral arguments and interact with the attorneys. Students said it was worthwhile — if, at times, tedious.
The first case, a murder appeal, wasn’t. Lawrence Smith was appealing his conviction for stabbing another drug dealer to death, chopping him up, disemboweling him with a chainsaw and dissolving the remains in buckets of acid.
He claimed his due process rights were violated because he was not given the opportunity to cross-examine a witness against him. The witness was his conspirator and co-defendant, Miguel Estrella, who confessed the crime to an undercover FBI agent while in prison but was never put on the stand during the trial.
The second case, St. Joseph Living Center Inc. vs. Town of Windham, was less graphic. The plaintiff, a Roman Catholic nursing home in Norwich, argued that the presence of a chapel on the same property as the home entitled the entire facility to be tax exempt.
Throughout the arguments, the justices would aggressively question the attorneys, often interrupting them, which surprised some students.
When the justices finished, the students got their turn. Between the cases, students had an hour to question the attorneys, asking about everything from legal strategy to life as a lawyer.
Andreas Mueller LAW ’09 said he felt privileged to see a State Supreme Court case, something he had been reading about for class and would not be able to do in his homeland, Austria.
Saurabh Sanghvi LAW ’11 said, like many of his classmates, it was his first time witnessing a real court session.
“I always thought about the Supreme Court as so far away,” he said. “I never thought about the real people involved who have to worry about their jail sentence.”
Jon Zytnick LAW ’11 agreed that it was hard to understand and said it was not particularly helpful in understanding the law but was more valuable for the practical experience of seeing lawyers in action.
The court will not render decisions on these cases for at least several weeks.