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New Learning Lab Connects Young Minds With Rule Of Law

By RJ Vogt | December 16, 2018, 8:02 PM EST

Guests at the Justice For All: Courts and the Community Learning Center opening ceremony on Dec. 10 interact with touch-screen exhibits in downtown Manhattan's Thurgood Marshall Courthouse. (Photo: RJ Vogt | Law360)

After exploring the exhibits and touch-screen kiosks at a new Manhattan-based center that aims to illuminate why courts matter, high school senior Ashley Santacruz said the facility, and the high-powered jurists who created it, had helped narrow her career goals.

“Speaking with the judges showed me that we all hold the ability to excel,” she told the audience at the opening ceremony for the Justice For All: Courts and the Community Learning Center. “They have inspired me to aim to become a federal judge and even a Supreme Court justice, and to one day have my picture in the halls of the courthouse, next to Justice Marshall and Justice Sotomayor.”

A crowd of roughly 100 legal professionals burst into applause. Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit beamed: Santacruz’s interest in the judiciary is the kind of aspiration he had hoped to inspire when he launched the “Justice For All” circuit-wide initiative back in 2014.

Ashley Santacruz, a high school senior, said the exhibit helped her realize her ambition to someday become a Supreme Court justice. (Photo: RJ Vogt | Law360)

Opening the “Justice for All” learning center inside the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse marked a culminating moment for the larger civic education program, which aims to increase public understanding of the role and operations of the courts by increasing access and contact between courthouses and regular people.

Considered the first of its kind, the initiative was sparked by the ignorance most Americans have about the country’s judiciary. During his opening remarks, Judge Katzmann cited a poll that found 10 percent of college graduates mistakenly believe television star Judge Judy to be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and another survey that reported one in three Americans can’t name a single branch of government.

“As John Dewey once observed, democracy has to be born anew every generation and education is it's midwife,” the judge said. “Students who learn about and appreciate the constitution and courts grow up to be adults who respect and support it.”

Through the Justice For All initiative, more than 10,000 students from over 250 schools have visited courthouses under the Second Circuit’s umbrella since June 2017, learning about legal research, observing historical court case reenactments and even witnessing naturalization ceremonies.

The center is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 am to 4:30 pm. (Photo: RJ Vogt | Law360)

The initiative has also led to the development of curriculum on law and the justice system for teachers to use in class — and, as of December 10, the opening of Thurgood Marshall Courthouse’s Community Learning Center.

The facility, located on the fifth floor of the courthouse, consists of interactive exhibits and multimedia displays on topics like the Constitution, famous cases and the structure of courts. A student can follow the path of a case from district court all the way to the high court. In a mock trial courtroom, students can observe reenactments or participate in their own mock trials.

A “create space” inside the center offers a way for students to develop podcasts and videos, and Katzmann also touted the facility’s moveable walls, which can be adapted to each new exhibit rather than the other around.

Veronica Thomas, a teacher at John Bowne High School in Queens, brought her law program students to test-drive the new center in October. She said having a chance to interact with court staff and learn more about legal research helped her students realize “the courts are accessible to them.”

Second Circuit Chief Judge Robert Katzmann said students who learn about the justice system grow up to be adults who respect and support it. (Photo: RJ Vogt | Law360)

“This is a public building, but they don’t view themselves as a part of the public,” she said. “But you’re absolutely allowed to go inside of a courtroom. You’re actually allowed to sit in and view a trial — it’s amazing that we’re able to teach them this.”

Santacruz, Thomas’s student, is set to graduate in the spring. She said the experience of playing the role of a lawyer in one of the learning center’s trial reenactments helped her realize “this is something that I really want to pursue.”

For Judge Katzmann, instilling that kind of respect for the courts is the whole point of the center.

“They come away with the sense that they too might someday be part of the justice system,” he said. “It’s always very moving to me, for example, when students… come back into the robing room and they put on the judge’s robe and they can have a sense of their futures.”

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.