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With visit to high school, Minnesota Supreme Court hopes to show human side of justice system

The Minnesota Supreme Court justices hear oral arguments for a case at the Alexandria Area High School on Thursday, Oct. 5. (Beth Leipholtz / Echo Press)1 / 2
Students line up during a question and answer session with the Minnesota Supreme Court justices on Thursday, Oct. 5 at Alexandria Area High School. (Beth Leipholtz / Echo Press)2 / 2

The Performing Arts Center at the Alexandria Area High School was temporarily transformed into a courtroom on Thursday, Oct. 5, as the Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments for a case.

Minnesota Supreme Court justices traveled to Alexandria as part of a program that works to educate students about the court system. About 900 sophomores, juniors and seniors attended.

Lorie Gildea, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, says that one purpose of the high school visits is so that students can become more comfortable with the court system and gain a more thorough understanding.

"I hope they see us as real people," she said in an interview after the court session. "I think it helps to demystify. A judge can be kind of a scary thing... Hopefully the students have a better sense that we're people, we're human beings, our process is like their process for making decisions. And we hope that they have a better understanding of the justice system as a whole, what lawyers do, what judges do and why the justice system should matter to everybody."

After hearing oral arguments, the Minnesota Supreme Court justices took part in a question and answer session with the students.

"They were all very thoughtful questions," Gildea said. "You see the news and think things might not be so great right now, but we come away from these visits having spent time with these really thoughtful young people who are really deeply concerned about the issues of the day. You come away thinking that America is going to be OK because these kids are going to grow up and they're going to take care of it."

Justices also had lunch with students and visited classrooms throughout the afternoon.

The oral arguments heard were for an actual case: the State of Minnesota, Respondent, vs. Erik John Heinonen, Appellant (Case No. A16-0229), according to Beau Berentson, director of communications and public affairs for the Minnesota Judicial Branch.

The defense in the case out of Sherburne County argues that statements made by the defendant, as well as a DNA sample taken by law enforcement, should not have been allowed as evidence. Court records state that Heinonen was arrested for unlawfully being in possession of a firearm.

In addition to visiting two high schools each year, the Minnesota Supreme Court is taking other steps to be more transparent. According to Gildea, oral arguments for all cases are now livestreamed on the website. A schedule of cases can be accessed at www.mncourts.gov/SupremeCourt.

Loosening restrictions on cameras into the courtroom is also something that is in the works, says Gildea. Currently, with the judge's consent, most civil cases allow cameras.

In addition to Gildea, other members of the Minnesota Supreme Court include Barry Anderson, David Stras, David Lillehaug, Natalie Hudson, Margaret Chutich and Anne McKeig.

Beth Leipholtz

Beth is a reporter at the Echo Press. She graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in May 2015 with a degree in Communication and Hispanic Studies. Journalism has always been her passion, but she also enjoys blogging and graphic design. In her spare time, she's most likely at Crossfit or at home with her boyfriend and three dogs.

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