“The Nebraska Court of Appeals is now in session. May all who come here be heard. May truth and justice be served by what we do here.”

These solemn words were spoken as the black box theatre of Bartholomew Performing Arts Center was transformed into a functioning courtroom for the day. Area high school and college students got a rare peek into the judicial system on Thursday, September 13, as the Nebraska Court of Appeals held oral arguments on the York College campus. It was a valuable experience for students who participate in mock trial, are majoring in criminal justice, or considering law school, to get a close-up view of the appellate process as well as enjoy networking and Q&A time with the judges and their staff.

One of the six judges to hear arguments during the event was David Arterburn ‘77, who was the York College Alumnus of the Year in 2017. Arterburn (center, right) and colleagues heard arguments on eight cases ranging from civil issues (termination of parental rights, workmen’s compensation insurance claims) to criminal offenses (enticement of a child, possession of a deadly weapon by a felon). Appeals hinged on small details with big ramifications, such as the many possible meanings of a single word or phrase, or how a brief comment to a jury could violate the presumption of innocence. Each side had ten minutes to present their case while judges asked follow up questions in a search for facets of the truth.  

The Nebraska Court of Appeals reviews about 1,000 cases per year. The Nebraska Supreme Court reviews an additional 200 appeals cases per year, typically on more serious crimes or complicated cases. Not all cases reviewed by the Court of Appeals include oral arguments, only cases where judges have questions that are not answered by the briefs, trial transcripts and other documents submitted. The Court of Appeals hears oral arguments two full days each month that the court is in session (September through May).  Many Court of Appeals cases are able to be resolved without argument and through the process of summary affirmance.

The court annually holds oral arguments on college campuses throughout Nebraska as a way of bringing the judicial branch to young people. This is the first time York College has hosted this event, which drew about 150 high school students to campus, as well as other visitors from the public. It was an excellent opportunity to showcase the campus and all the college has to offer students interested in law. Students were furnished with expanded case descriptions prior to the oral arguments and allowed to ask questions on court process and procedure following each panel argument session.

The day began with comments from Dr. Tim McNeese, associate professor of History, who set the stage by presenting on Constitution Day (celebrated September 17), as the judicial branch was one of the three branches of government set forth in the constitution. McNeese brought scenes of history to life for students, describing the sights, sounds, and smells as men such as Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington hashed out the details of the new nation in Independence Hall 231 years ago. “You’re going to see the constitution at work today,” McNeese explained.

The constitution was also explored during the daily chapel program as Dr. Shane Mountjoy, provost, moderated a discussion panel of visiting judges. They presented on the importance of the document, including its historical context and modern application. “It’s the basis on which our entire system of law is built,” Judge Arterburn told students.

York College criminal justice majors Adrianna Sotolongo and Bri Eckerberg served as student ambassadors during the Court of Appeals event on campus. “I really enjoyed getting to know the judges and seeing that they are just normal people,” said Sotolongo, a senior from Fontana, California. She was intrigued by the many paths the judges had taken to the bench. Some of them had other careers, including accounting, entrepreneurship, and education, before pursuing law. The oral arguments were interesting to Sotolongo, who had never seen a courtroom in action before.

Eckerberg participated in mock trial in high school and has frequently experienced court rooms as an observer, so the Court of Appeals event on campus was not as new to her as it was for Sotolongo. Still it was enjoyable for her to sit in on the oral argument sessions. “It surprised me to see how excited the attorneys got presenting their arguments months after the trial was over,” she said. “I liked seeing the fire and passion they brought to it.” While she finds law fascinating, Eckerberg does not plan to pursue law school. Rather, she plans to follow in her father’s footsteps--he is a sergeant in the police department serving Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Eckerberg is drawn to law enforcement because it will allow her to help others and improve communities. Eckerberg is a sophomore and is also majoring in psychology.

“Even if you’re not going to law school, it’s important to study the law so that you know how your government works,” she said.