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Justice gives hands-on training in law

A Superior High School classroom became a courtroom Friday when Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson asked students in Jackie Olson's introduction to law class to sit as judges over a simple law.

Supreme Court
Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson discusses the importance of remaining impartial when interpreting the law with Superior High School students in Jackie Olson's Introduction to Law class Friday. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

A Superior High School classroom became a courtroom Friday when Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson asked students in Jackie Olson's introduction to law class to sit as judges over a simple law.

"No vehicles on State Street," the justice told the students. Then, she began to ask if skateboards, baby carriages, broken bicycles being wheeled to a repair shop, tricycles or wheelchairs should get a ticket. As they went through each example, the students had to ask themselves about the purpose behind the law and view the "vehicle" through the eyes of reason.

The hands-on lesson introduced the teens to complications that come with interpreting a law.

"Being a judge is using your knowledge on the law, using your sense of reasonableness," she said. Sometimes that means making exceptions.

"Are you an activist judge if you read in exceptions?" Abrahamson asked the class. "Activist judge is shorthand for 'I didn't like the decision.'"

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Judges have to put personal bias, sympathy and popularity aside when making a ruling. And once they're done, the chief justice said, "You put it aside. You can't beat yourself up."

For sophomore Annie Archambeau, a member of the SHS Mock Trial Team, the visit encouraged her future dreams.

"I'm super interested in law; I'd like to follow in her example," she said. "If she could do it, I could do it."

Fellow Mock Trial teammate Amanda Tesarek said it was amazing to have such a high-ranking official visit.

"To have her talking to you brings her down to a more personal level," she said.

"She was so down to earth," Archambeau agreed.

Abrahamson was appointed to the Supreme Court by then-Gov. Patrick Lucey in 1976. At the time, she was the only woman to serve on the court. She stopped in Superior on Friday to attend a Law Day celebration at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, but first visited with the high school students.

The teens have been following Supreme Court cases online through www.wicourts.gov . The most recent case involved a stalking incident where police covertly attached a GPS device to the suspect's car to track it. Based in part on tracking information retrieved from the GPS device, police obtained a search warrant which led to incriminating evidence against the suspect that led to a conviction.

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The appeal in the case led to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction.

Abrahamson's visit provides a crucial connection to students, Olson said.

"To actually have the Chief Justice come in puts a name to a face," Olson said. "We have read her writing and opinions. To actually meet her enhances our curriculum."

Olson recalled when groups of justices would travel throughout the state to hear cases. Funding cuts have severed that on-the-road program, however.

Like Superior Days delegations, visits like Abrahamson's strengthen the bonds between Superior and Madison.

"It keeps us connected to the hub of government, even though we're so far north," Olson said.

Abrahamson also went through a basic review of how court cases move from circuit court to appeals court to the Supreme Court and encouraged students to learn more about law online and by visiting their local courthouse.

"Just watch the proceedings," she said. "You'll learn more about Douglas County in half an hour in court than anywhere else, guaranteed ... it's the best entertainment in town."

Related Topics: SUPERIORU.S. SUPREME COURT
Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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