Sheehan

Laying a legal foundation

Concepts get clearer for teens when high school civics moves downtown

Staff WriterJune 9, 2010 

Six high school students shifted uncomfortably in their seats as Campbell Law School Dean Melissa Essary began peppering them with questions about the nation's rule of law. With characteristic verve, she compared their quick course in legal education to a pot of hot spaghetti.

"Let's see what sticks to the wall," she said.

Plenty, it turns out. Before long, the students were sharing their thoughts on the role of the Supreme Court in shaping the law, gray areas in the Constitution and one of Essary's favorite topics: the role of personal responsibility in building a better government.

"If the government is a reflection of its people," said Emily Tomasko, a home schooled teenager from Cary, "then the more people educate themselves ... the better their government will be."

Essary beamed.

It's not every day that 16-year-olds get to sit around and jaw with a law school dean. Or a Superior Court judge. Or the head of the state Bar. Especially to talk about a topic so abstract, yet so profoundly important as the role of the law in daily life.

Yet that's what happened Monday afternoon at what organizers hope will become an annual Rule of Law Conference for high school students.

It was the brainchild of News & Observer Publisher Orage Quarles III, who attended a similar conference aimed at adults a few years ago in Cary.

"He came up to me after and said, 'We need to do this for high school kids,' " said state Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin. So Martin took the Bar Association's adult seminar, which he has helped take to 32 states, and refashioned it for a teenage audience. Martin said the conference was the first of its kind. .

"This is a supplement to the schools' civics lessons," he said. "We want to show them how the law applies, not just to lawyers and judges, but to each citizen and every citizen."

Later, more than 100 students from 10 Triangle high schools and 20 home schools met in small groups with local legal luminaries including Essary, who volunteered the law school as host for the event.

Essary's involvement is emblematic of a broader mission of outreach that has characterized the dean and the law school since their move last fall from Campbell's main campus in Buies Creek to downtown Raleigh.

The conference might also turn out to be a great recruiting tool. Several of the students said they are considering attending law school someday.

"I used to think I wanted to be a newspaper reporter," said Kyle Goetzinger, a rising junior at Fuquay-Varina High School, "but then I decided, I'd like to be able to afford a car."

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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