If the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is hearing a case, it is, by definition, important. But perhaps just as important as which four cases the state’s highest court heard on Tuesday was where it heard them: not at its usual home in Boston, but at a district courthouse in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Over a course of three hours and four cases, the seven SJC justices had a lot of questions for the lawyers, who, one by one, stood before them in Courtroom 4 at the Fenton Judicial Center in Lawrence. But after the court adjourned, the tables were turned during a special 20-minute session where the honorable justices themselves faced some tough questions — from high schoolers, including Kayla Ortega, who was in attendance with her history class from Lawrence High School.
"I’m curious why the council said a state-paid lawyer is a mistake," she asked.
"Well, so are we," Justice Margot Botsford quipped, eliciting a laugh from the crowd and her fellow justices.
Ortega was just one of dozens of area students who got a chance to see the state’s highest court in action at this special sitting outside its usual home at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston. George Secrecus brought his history class from Greater Lawrence Technical High School.
"I mean, a lot of the kids earlier said, [when] we were discussing it, is it like TV?" he explained. "I think just to be able to experience it — to be able to touch it, smell it, see it — is invaluable to the students."
Brian Flaherty, a teacher at Lawrence’s Central Catholic High School, attended with the school's mock trial team. While the plan was to pick up some valuable tips from the true masters, what really struck him and his students was just how approachable the whole proceeding — and the people involved — were.
"They were human," Flaherty said. "Judges probably have a reputation for being stern and being stone-faced, and lawyers have a reputation for being lawyers, so I think it’s good to see that they are human. They smile, they laugh, they trip up, and they’re just trying to do the right thing."
It wasn’t just students packed into the courtroom. There were also curious citizens and area lawyers like Alicia McNeil.
"To have the SJC travel and sit somewhere different, I think it’s great for the community and great for us attorneys that don’t really get an opportunity to go into Boston," she said.
McNeil had never seen the SJC hold court in person, and she said her first experience did not disappoint.
"It was more than I expected because I’m here, I get to listen to the arguments, I also — in my head — am thinking about what I would argue as well," she explained. "It was really fabulous."
Attorney Jim Krasnoo has seen the court in action before, even argued before it, but he says that having them here in Lawrence sends a valuable message across the Commonwealth.
"There’s some people who feel — even in the legal system — that Lawrence is so far north that nobody in Boston really cares about us," he said. "That’s not true. And if we feel it, imagine how people out in Springfield and Worcester and all the courts in between feel. So it’s a wonderful idea that they reach out and let them know, 'Hey we’re a court for the state, we’re here for everybody.'"
And that really is the point of taking the court on the road, said Justice David A. Lowy.
"It’s very important that people not feel detached from their system of justice," he said.
Lowy said the day’s proceedings were particularly poignant for him, as he tried his first case as a lawyer in Lawrence 27 years ago. But for as much as the day was a nod to his past, he came away thinking about the future.
"This is really thrilling to look out in the audience and see those student, those fresh eyes," he said, "that ambition, our future, our hope."