The California Supreme Court revived a special tradition on Tuesday, filling its audience for oral argument with 80 students from San Diego high schools. It was the court’s first special outreach session since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“Our purpose is to bring the court to the community,” said California Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero, and “educate the students about the role of the California Supreme Court and the importance of an independent and impartial judiciary.”
Students attending oral argument held in San Diego’s Fourth Appellate District courtroom hailed from Monarch School, which serves unhoused students; Crawford High School’s Academy of Law; King-Chavez Community High School; Barrio Logan College Institute; and Reality Changers, a nonprofit preparing students to become first-generation college graduates.
Fourth Appellate District justices and attorneys visited the participating schools in the weeks before oral argument to teach students about the court and prepare them on the cases coming before the court today, said the district’s Presiding Justice Judith McConnell.
The California Supreme Court has previously hosted more than a dozen student outreach programs that allow students to participate in and learn from the judicial process. The court last hosted an outreach program for San Diego students in 2016.
Students in the audience were intrigued by the “hot bench,” with justices peppering counsel on both sides with pointed questions.
“It was such an incredible experience–they quiz you!” said Jacqueline De Anda, who will be a senior at Barrio Logan next year. “They’re finding potholes in their arguments to prove if they are right or wrong.”
The justices stayed on the bench after oral argument to answer questions from the students.
A student asked Chief Justice Guerrero about obstacles in her path to becoming California’s first Latina Chief Justice. While there were plenty of challenges growing up in the rural Imperial Valley, the Chief Justice said, “I consider these to be experiences that have made me stronger and shaped who I am. I’m very grateful to have that background…I value my family’s culture and my upbringing.”
Justice Joshua Groban was asked if he ever felt pulled to follow in his father’s footsteps as a physician. After admitting he was ill-suited for math or science, Justice Groban said he did learn from his father the importance of helping others. “The people who seem happiest, and most excited and enriched by their jobs, are people who are doing something that impacts other people,” he said.
Justice Carol Corrigan fielded a question about factors that go into the court’s decisions. Justice Corrigan quipped that “the Supreme Court is not last because it’s always right, but we’re right because we’re always last.”
“With that reality comes a really huge responsibility,” Justice Corrigan added. “It puts the burden on us to be humble when we interpret the law, to be intellectually honest, and to be fair.”
Justice Goodwin Liu was asked about lessons learned outside of his studies. He cited two: find mentors who know you and can guide you—whether a parent, teacher, or community leader—and don’t forget to listen to your own inner voice to guide you to your passion.
Justice Martin Jenkins answered a student’s question about his transition from his early career playing in the NFL to pursuing a career in the law. “I had this deep disappointment and almost grief about this dream that had gone sideways. What that caused me to do, though, was to rely on some of the things I learned along the way…. resilience, recovering from disappointment, re-dedicating yourself.”
Justice Leondra Kruger spoke about how college shaped her own career path, which was seeded early in her life “with a very strong sense of finding what I can do to help the community and to be of service to other people.”
Justice Kelli Evans, the newest member of the high court, was asked what parts of the job inspire her when work is difficult. She cited the court’s promise that all are entitled to equal justice, the privilege of sitting on the state’s highest court, and her perspective drawn from growing up with her grandmother in public housing.
Evans issued her own promise to the future lawyers and judges among the student audience:
“We’ll keep the seats warm for you.”