COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) – Local high school students found themselves starting Wednesday, April 12 on a field trip to an atypical legal setting. The Georgia Court of Appeals turned the main stage at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts into a makeshift courtroom.

This unorthodox location for court hearings was chosen as part of the Court of Appeals’ efforts to make their work more accessible to young students in communities outside of Atlanta.

“We’ve got courts that do the public’s business in the public,” Presiding Judge Ben Land, a Columbus native, said.

According to Land, when Presiding Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes asked him where the Court of Appeals should host their annual open-to-the-public proceedings for 2023, he proposed the Fountain City without hesitation.

As more than 700 local high school students filed into the theater, chattering amongst themselves, Georgia’s Court of Appeals Chief Judge Brian Rickman told WRBL he hoped the event would “light a spark in some of these young folks,” and provide some basic civics education to the high schoolers.

Before the hearings, Barnes addressed the importance of bringing the Court of Appeals’ activities to the eyes of students and said she wanted them to see that an appeal is not just an abstract concept, but something real. This sentiment was reiterated by Presiding Judge Christopher J. McFadden who was present at the event, though he was not on the panel of judges for the hearings.

“These are real cases of real and significant importance to the parties,” McFadden said. He emphasized that he wanted the high schoolers to see the application of law based on reason.

Jakiah Allen, a sophomore from Jordan Vocational High School, said she had some trepidation before coming to the event because she expected a boring lecture but that quickly changed.

Allen expressed that it was encouraging to see how the legal process works. She said, “Now, leaving here today, I actually want to be a judge now.”

Another student, Kalin Zavala, a freshman at Jordan Vocational High School, said, “It’s interesting to me, how it all works and how complicated it is.” For Zavala, it was impressive how the lawyers squeezed countless hours of work into just 15 minute speeches for the judges, something which other students repeated as well.

“I think seeing the lawyers work in their job really brought to perspective how much they have to put into their job and how much they have to prepare to talk in front of the judges,” said Rania Haque, a ninth grader at Columbus High School. She mentioned that seeing the lawyers work in real life, was very different to viewing law practice through a staged tv show.

Om Patel, another ninth grader from Columbus High School, said he found the atmosphere of the occasion a little strict, though he said there were emotional moments too. Patel described his experience watching the Court of Appeals’ proceedings as “surreal” and positive overall.

The cases were evaluated by a panel of judges that included Land, Barnes, and Rickman. As proceedings began for the first of three cases to be heard for the occasion, Land paused the presenting lawyer to ask him for clarifying details for the benefit of the student audience, who had been briefed on some of what they would see prior to the event by Court of Appeals judges at their schools.

The Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia was established in 1906 and is based out of Atlanta. Cases are brought to the appellate court for Court of Appeals judges to reconsider the ruling of a lower court when a party disagrees with the original ruling.