East High School students witness state Supreme Court

Last Thursday, East High School junior McCoy Cantwell asked state Supreme Court justices and attorneys whether Superman was an identity thief.

In a 1966 comic, America’s most enduring superhero revealed his Social Security number – which turned out to belong to a real-life New Yorker.

Minutes earlier, Cantwell had heard The People of the State of Colorado v. Eduardo Perez, an identity theft case centering around a stolen Social Security number, argued before the Colorado Supreme Court – all in Cantwell’s high school auditorium.

When it comes to Superman’s possible crime, Colorado’s finest attorneys are split.

The State Supreme Court paid East High School a visit last week as part of the Colorado Judicial Branch’s Courts in the Community program.

Through Courts in the Community, the Colorado Supreme Court and the Colorado appellate courts each hear two cases at local high schools every year. The goal: civic education.

At East, students heard lawyers argue two high-profile cases in front of the Court. Before the hearings, students learned about the cases in their civics and government classes.

First was Fleury v. IntraWest, a wrongful-death suit filed against the corporation that owns Winter Park Ski Resort.

Colorado resident Salynda Fleury filed the case when her husband, Christopher Norris, died in an avalanche within the ski-area’s boundary at Winter Park – a death for which she feels IntraWest should be held responsible.

In 2014, a Colorado appellate court heard Fleury, ruling that, under the state’s Ski Safety Act, avalanches can be considered one of the “inherent dangers and risks of skiing,” for which resort operators like Intrawest are not responsible.

But Fleury claims that since avalanches are not explicitly mentioned in the Act, resorts are legally responsible for deaths or injuries that avalanches cause.

After arguments were heard, the Justices left and students got to question the lawyers on both sides. Some asked about the details of the Ski Safety Act, whereas others asked about the structure of Colorado’s justice system, the value of law school and how the judges write their arguments.

The Court also heard The People of the State of Colorado v. Eduardo Perez – a case about stolen identity.

Perez was charged with criminal impersonation and identity theft when he used a false Social Security number to obtain employment at a local barbeque restaurant. He was caught after the number’s real owner – who was on unemployment benefits – was contacted by the Colorado Department of Labor’s Fraud Investigation Unit.

A jury found Perez guilty on both charges. Perez claimed that he didn’t know the number belonged to a real person and appealed the decision.

In May of 2013, a Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in Perez’s favor, allowing him to avoid a possible prison sentence of up to eight years. Now, it’s up to the state Supreme Court to decide whether Perez can be charged – and the decision will be final.

Both court decisions will be postponed for months.

As for the fate of Superman — all-American hero and possible identity thief — the justices weren’t allowed to weigh in for fear that it would influence their decision in the Perez case. So they left the room.

Perez’s defense argued Superman was in the clear. The prosecution, on the other hand, was ready to send the superhero to prison for identity theft.

After the lawyers left, the Justices returned and took questions from the students.

One asked about the Justices’ judicial philosophies, and another was curious about which colleges and law schools they had attended.

One student even asked about which kind of soup each member of the Court would be – a play on the fact that ius is the Latin word for both “law” and “soup.”

Justice Allison Eid answered that she would be minestrone – because being on the Court requires her to have a breadth of knowledge as diverse as the soup’s breadth of ingredients.

After questions, students joined the Justices for lunch, and were encouraged to continue the dialogue. Students breaking bread with the justices is, arguably, the Courts in the Community program’s greatest asset.

“I think it’s one of the best things the Court does to put a face on justice… It’s a more transparent process,” says Greg Hobbs, who retired from the Court this September.

In whole, the program allows students and community members to hear cases at the appellate level – which, as opposed to the trial level, generally tends to have much less public engagement.

“[The program] introduces people to a part of the justice system you almost never see in movies, never on TV: the appellate process.” says Jon Sarché, the Public Information Coordinator for the Colorado Judicial Branch.

“I thought it was a really good experience, because most of [the students] would never go down to the courthouse to hear oral arguments,” said Remington Ruyle, captain of East’s Constitutional Scholars team.

“This way, students get to have direct contact with their government in a way that most people never have the opportunity to.”

Ross Snyder, the president of East’s Legal Studies Club, shared Ruyle’s outlook: “Having the Supreme Court come to our school was a really amazing experience… Knowing about these systems is so important for the future, and so it’s incredible to have so many students get a chance to get involved while still in high school.”


Photo credit: JD Hancock, Creative Commons, Flickr.