Law Day opens students' eyes to justice system: Attorney speaks about defending unpopular clients

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Before the next defendant walked into the courtroom, Felica Hutson had a few procedural questions for Judge Michael Hathaway.

Looking sharp in a checked skirt, tie and vest, she was poised and confident as she listened carefully to Hathaway's answers. Then she nodded, apparently satisfied.

"No further questions," she said, before taking her seat.

Just another lawyer in just another courtroom?

Not quite.

Felica was one of about 75 Wayne County high school students who attended Friday's 24th Annual Law Day sponsored by the Third Circuit Court in Detroit.

The students gathered at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice to sit in on criminal court proceedings, have lunch with judges, and listen to defense attorney Steven Fishman talk about "defending the unpopular."

Felica, 14, a student at Detroit International Academy, has wanted to be a lawyer since the age of six.

So she'd been looking forward to Law Day for weeks.

"I was really excited when my teacher first told me about it," she said. "I wanted to see for myself what it's like for future reference."

She said she first considered becoming a lawyer while watching Law & Order with her grandfather.

But she's also convinced she has the lawyerly personality.

"I've always had an argumentative spirit," said Felica, who lives in Detroit's east side. "People say I'm just like my dad. He wanted to be a lawyer, but he didn't finish college."

Felica said she hopes to go to an out-of-state college, and then attend law school in New York City, where she wants to ultimately live.

Michael Lee, director of criminal court services, answered the girls' questions and explained intricacies of the law as he led them from one courtroom to the next.

Law Day is a great opportunity for the students to learn how the criminal justice system works, Lee said.

"And it gives them an opportunity to engage some very influential people in this region in the criminal justice system," he said. "I think it's one of the best things going right now."

Lee took the dozen girls to the courtroom of Judge Linda V. Parker so they could talk with a female judge.

After greeting the students, Parker explained that she had a short docket of cases that day, and had just expunged a record.

"Do you know what that means?" she asked, before explaining why it had been so important for the felon to have his conviction set aside.

"Wayne County Circuit Court is the largest circuit court in the state of Michigan and is by far the busiest court in the state of Michigan," she said, adding that it is also in the top 10 of busiest courts in the country.

Parker explained the difference between a jury trial and a bench trial, and said she prefers when the decision is made by a jury of 14 who've listened to the evidence.

"It's a very challenging thing when it's just me making the decision," she said.

Judge Timothy M. Kenny, presiding judge- criminal division, addressed the students following their pizza lunch.

He told the Legal News that Law Day is an excellent experience for high school students to be see how the court system operates.

"They get to see real lawyers and participants in the system, and our hope is that when they leave they have a greater appreciation of how the system works," he said. "We also hold out the hope that it may spark an interest in the lives of several of them that they'll want to go on and become lawyers, judges, or other roles in the criminal justice system."

He said that TV dramas have given the public the misconception that a case can be neatly wrapped up in an hour -- minus the commercials.

By lunchtime, Felica was more convinced than ever that the lawyerly life was the life for her.

And she was also convinced of something else.

Watching several young men stand before a judge, the backs of their shirts bearing the words, "Wayne County Jail Prisoner," she shook her head.

"I don't want to defend a criminal," she said. "Even though they say they're innocent until proven guilty."

She may have softened her stance a bit after listening to the day's guest speaker. Defense attorney Steven Fishman spoke about defending the unpopular client.

"Since I've had plenty of those, I think I have some expertise in that area," he told the Legal News. "The point I'll make to the kids is that if the unpopular client doesn't have any rights, it's not too far before the rest of us don't have any rights because the question is always the same: Who decides who's popular and who's unpopular?"

He said Law Day is an important event because it increases the students' awareness of the process.

"It's good for them to understand that a lot of things they take for granted occurred because of things lawyers did," he said. "It's not just 1-800-CALL SAM, and TV shows."

Five schools sent students to Law Day: Barsamian High School; Huron High School; Casa Richard Academy; Universal Academy; and Detroit International Academy.

The day concluded with results of an essay contest focusing on John Adams' role in the Boston Massacre. Adams' legacy was the national theme for Law Day 2011.

The winners of the essay contest were Barsamian High School, and Amera Ahmed of DIA.

Published: Wed, May 11, 2011

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