Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 7, 2016

Federal judges share knowledge with teachers

U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough presents an overview of the federal judiciary to local teachers. - Photograph by David Laprad

Teacher Stacy Roberson is accustomed to standing at the front of her classroom as she instructs her students at East Hamilton High School in the particulars of the U.S. government.

But for one afternoon in September, Roberson took a seat and became the student as local judges gave her and several of her peers a transparent and intimate look at the federal court system.

The event took place Sept. 21 at the Joel L. Solomon Federal Building, and brought together four federal judges, members of the Chattanooga Chapter of the Federal Bar Association (FBA), and teachers from throughout the Eastern District of Tennessee. The purpose of the gathering was to allow the local judiciary to swing wide the heavy steel and glass doors of the building and give local educators a chance to see firsthand the very things they are tasked with teaching their students.

Robertson, who primarily teaches U.S. government, embraced the opportunity. “I like to see things in person,” she said as she introduced herself to the others. “I’m hoping this will help me improve my teaching.”

 The occasion was the fruition of a seed of concern that had been growing in the mind of Senior United States District Judge Curtis Collier for some time. Troubled by what he perceived to be a decline in respect for the federal judiciary, Judge Collier approached the FBA last year to inquire about ways it could improve the public’s perception of the courts. Donna Mikel, a local private practice attorney and former president of the FBA, said Judge Collier’s claim initially surprised the association.

“Of all of our public institutions, we thought the federal judiciary was held in the highest esteem,” Mikel said as she welcomed the teachers to the courthouse. “But studies have shown a gradual decline in the public’s perception of the judiciary. This surprised us because those of us who practice in this courthouse day in and day out have tremendous admiration and respect for the manner in which justice is delivered.”

Their eyes opened, the members of the FBA began meeting with community leaders to identify the root of the problem and brainstorm solutions. During the course of these discussions, Mikel said it became clear that the FBA needed to reach out to the ones who typically introduce the federal courts to the next generation of Americans – teachers.

“From what we’re learning, a lot of young people end up feeling apathetic about the judiciary, or have a sense of disrespect for the courts,” Mikel said to the teachers. “You have the ability to place your fingers on the pulse of the problem. So we’re reaching out to you to find out what we can do better.”

As Judge Collier introduced himself to the educators, he said he believes part of the solution lies in giving the public more opportunities to have contact with the federal courts. He recalled his mother serving on multiple juries, and said few people today will ever serve on a jury or see how a court functions. “Without this foundation, people are getting their information from movies, television, and social media,” he said, “and this is giving them a warped impression of what goes on in our courts.”

Judge Collier said it is imperative that society engender a sense of respect for the federal courts, as failing to do so would place the very democracy that governs the United States at risk. “Our founders set up a national government in which the judiciary is the weakest branch. If you look around the world, you’ll see many examples of executives that function without public support. There are also parliaments that function without public support. But I challenge you to name a single court system that’s functioning without public support,” he said.

“The courts don’t have an army to send out to make people obey our decisions. People follow our orders because they have faith in the system and believe they should do what we tell them do to. But what type of society would we have if no one followed the decisions the courts made? Our democracy, as we know it, would cease to exist.”

In addition to Judge Collier, U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough, U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Steger, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Lee were present to speak with the teachers. After introductions were complete, Judge McDonough presented an overview of the federal courts. As he delved into the history and the inner workings of the judicial branch, Kim Thurman, a government teacher at Sale Creek, took notes. “We touch on the courts, but that’s it,” she said. “The more I know about this topic, the more time I’ll spend on it.”

Next, Judge Collier invited the teachers into his courtroom to view three criminal proceedings: a change of plea hearing, a sentencing hearing, and a revocation of supervised release. As the teachers sat in the jury box, they watched a young man who had been charged with possessing methamphetamine with the intent to sell it change his plea from not guilty to guilty, they saw a man found guilty of assaulting a member of the U.S. Postal Service sentenced to several years in federal prison, and they witnessed the judge send a third man back to jail for violating the terms of his supervised release.

The proceedings were anything but impassive. In the sentencing and revocation hearings, Judge Collier listened patiently to each attorney and defendant, and then announced his decision and explained the reason for it to the men he was placing behind bars. His manner was neither theatrical nor detached; rather, it was personable but forthright.

In a moment that made an impression on several of the teachers, the man who had been convicted of assaulting a mailman made an tearful apology to his victim, who was present in the courtroom but did not look at his attacker. Someone then read an equally emotional but unyielding victim impact statement to the court on behalf of the injured party. After hearing both sides, Judge Collier sentenced the attacker according to the law.

Several teachers said the hearings were more focused on the individuals and the human factors involved than they had expected. During a lively open discussion with the educators following the hearings, Judge Collier said that while the higher levels of the federal judiciary tend to deal with wholesale issues, the trial level district courts typically deal with individuals. Judge Collier also said determining a guilty party’s fate is no small matter. While he focuses on the individuals involved and thoroughly prepares for each sentencing, he is impacted by what the defendant says to him in the moments before being sentenced.

During the open discussion, Judge McDonough, who was sworn in last December, spoke about the importance of judges remaining impartial. While going through judge’s training, he said he was impressed by how the participants set aside their personal views and opinions and learned how to fulfill their duties in the objective manner required by the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Lee spent time describing the role of a U.S. magistrate judge.

The teachers took advantage of their access to the judges to pose probing questions. One educator asked how the federal courts could expect people to be deterred by the sentence given to an individual when sentences are not routinely published. The judges said family members often spread the news about a sentencing throughout their community. This led to a discussion about whether or not sentencing data should be published on a regular basis, with the teachers expressing their belief that students might be impacted by the release of such data.

The afternoon ended with the judges sharing success stories in which an individual’s encounter with a federal court led him to change his life for the better. While the teachers agreed these stories alone should earn the federal judiciary the respect it needs to function effectively, Mikel said the public should take into account one additional factor: the level of commitment of the servants of the federal court. She used Judge Collier as an example.

“Judge Collier became a district judge in 1995. Due to the way our laws were written, he was permitted to become either a retired or a senior judge in 2014. Either way, he would have possibly earned the same compensation. But instead of fully retiring, he decided to continue to serve our courts,” Mikel said. “So as you’re watching him conduct criminal proceedings, please keep in mind he could be earning the same amount of money golfing or fishing.”

Armed with a new experience to share their with their students, the teachers returned to their classrooms enlightened and informed. These educators also gave the FBA hope that the regard with which the public once held the federal courts could be nurtured again through enlightening and informing the next generation of Americans.

“We’ve changed our curriculum,” said Brandon Lowery, a teacher at Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences. “Seniors were getting only about five weeks of government during the spring semester, which is a crazy time in schools. Now our sophomores are taking a full semester of government so we can go in-depth. And we’re seeing the benefits.”

Many of Lowery’s students have even asked to take a trip to the courthouse. Their interest in seeing the federal court operate firsthand suggests the tide of apathy could be ebbing, and in its place, a new wave of respect and admiration for the “weakest branch” of the U.S. government could be on the rise.

For more information about the FBA, contact Mikel at dmikel@bdplawfirm.com. To inquire about a tour of the federal courthouse, call the clerk’s office at (423) 752-5200.