The 2021 Annual ‘Women Everywhere’ Education Day Courtroom Tours for High School Students Were a Virtual & Real Success
What Are ‘WE’ Education Day Courtroom Tours?
Every year since 2000, the Women Everywhere Education Day Project, a component of the Women Everywhere: Partners in Service initiative established in 1999 by the president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois in coordination with several women’s bar leaders, has seen busloads of CPS (Chicago Public Schools) and suburban H.S. Senior Girls (maybe it is time we should consider calling them young women?) arrive at the Daley Center and the federal courthouse in the Chicago Loop, the DV Courthouse, the Criminal Courthouse, and several Courthouses in the outlying Districts. In ‘normal’ times, with WE volunteers assigned to each student group and with their teachers serving as chaperones, the students come prepared to observe, first-hand, jury and bench trials in progress as well as a vast variety of other kinds of court proceedings. These visits to the courtrooms have often included pre- or post-hearing meetings with the sitting judges who oversee the proceedings at which they are invited to ask questions, and on occasion, the students are also treated to discussions with the attorneys for the opposing litigants about their cases and the evidence and arguments that have been offered.
For this population, it has been a meaningful exposure to our justice system in progress, and as such, the courtroom visits have engendered vibrant discussions between the students and the WE volunteer group leaders and often with the judges and practicing attorneys themselves. The subjects of such exchanges are broad in range and include how and why a particular grievance by an individual or group of individuals, or a company or other kind of entity, is brought to a courtroom, what kind of compensation or other form of amends can be sought by the aggrieved plaintiff against the defendant, what happens when a party loses, and whether there are avenues the ‘losing’ party can pursue if she, he, they, or the entity believes an error occurred in the proceedings or in the court’s ruling. More on this aspect can be found if you keep reading!
How Do the Students React? What Do They See & Learn?
Having such encounters over the years has proven to the WE leadership, its many members and bar partners (a long list of bar associations that annually support, financially and otherwise, the Ed Day Project), as well as the attorneys who volunteer to guide the student-teacher groups through the halls of justice, that the students are eager to learn about how the process works, whether it works, and most important of all, why we need impartial and well-trained jurists to hear and process the evidence and testimony offered in any/every case, big or small or in-between. With such an understanding, the participants in the court tours may begin to recognize how critical the courts are for assuring the opportunity for any citizen, resident, or person, and any entity—like a business or community organization or government body—to bring their pleas before an unbiased judge who will hear and weigh the facts and assess the merits of the arguments on both sides, know and apply the relevant law to the case, and deliver an appropriate remedy, or instead reject (‘dismiss’) a matter for a perceived and stated lack of sufficient evidence.
The students then learn about the right of any litigant who is unhappy with the decision and believes justice has not been served, to bring his, her, its, or their claim(s) of error to a higher court, a process they will come to understand is called an ‘appeal’ of what the unhappy person or party who has lost the argument in the trial court believes was an incorrect result of the trial court proceeding. Such appeals may be based upon the claim that the trial court did not properly consider the range and import of the evidence that was presented during the trial or other kind of hearing, or improperly rejected valuable and relevant evidence. Another significant argument to be made to an ‘appellate’ court is that the trial court judge did not properly identify and/or apply the relevant statutes and ‘case law’ to the evidence submitted by all parties.
Those of us who have been engaged over many years in the Ed Day Tours have been able to receive ‘feedback’ from the public school administrators advising how engaged the students seemed to have been during the courtroom tours as measured by their excited reports of what they heard, understood, learned, and also wish to explore further. We who have helped to lead these tour groups also have witnessed how carefully the students listen to the judges and lawyers during their presentations and how eager they are to pose questions about what they have heard.
THUS, FOR ALL THE REASONS STATED IN THIS ARTICLE UP TO NOW, THE WOMEN EVERYWHERE LEADERSHIP AND ITS BOARD AND PLANNING COMMITTEE DECIDED THE 2021 WE EDUCATION DAY PROJECT SIMPLY MUST PROCEED EVEN THOUGH THE COURTROOMS WERE CLOSED. HENCE, FOR THOSE OF US IN THE CHICAGO AREA, WE CHOSE TO WORK WITH THE CPS ADMINISTRATION AND MANY TEACHERS—AND THEY WITH US and WITH GREAT EFFECT—TO CREATE A READILY ACCESSIBLE MEANS OF REMOTE YET INTERACTIVE COMMUNICATION THAT WOULD ALLOW THE STUDENTS TO HEAR AND LEARN FROM THE JUDGES AND PRACTICING ATTORNEYS ABOUT HOW OUR VARIOUS COURT SYSTEMS WORK AND WHAT KINDS OF MATTERS ARE HEARD AND DECIDED. (Please note that virtual tours took place in outlying districts but this piece is focused on the partnership with the CPS and its schools.)
What Was Different About This Year’s Courtroom Visits?
SO…on several different days in April of 2021 to accommodate the several hundred students anticipated to participate, WE and the CPS, through its GOOGLE MEETS app and its tech team, and with support from WE’s expert tech consultant, held virtual visits for the students and their teachers with representatives of the criminal and the civil courts through pre-recorded overviews. Those viewings followed quite engaging and powerful introductions to the entire program by the Hon. Rebecca Pallmeyer, chief justice of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois located in Chicago—and the first woman ever in the history of that court system to hold such an office, and the Hon. Timothy Evans, Chief Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court also in Chicago, who is a longtime devoted supporter of this WE project.
Thereafter, the 300 students were broken up into more manageable virtual groups to meet, also virtually, with 4-person teams of WE volunteer lawyers headed by a team leader. In the team I joined, which by design included a sitting judge from the criminal court system, we had a group of students interested in how one becomes a lawyer or a judge, what you have to study in law school and for how long, who represents individuals charged with a crime, what a class action case is and how such a group of individual plaintiffs who have suffered the same injury find each other and a lawyer. Another area of law we explored involves persons who have been adversely affected by incidents arising in the delivery of medical care to them as patients. That subject brought us to a discussion of what malpractice cases are all about, especially in the medical field, but even where a car, a bus, or other vehicular accident is involved.
The students were also interested in learning from the Judge on our team who oversees traffic and ordinance violation cases, what happens if a person shows up and has no lawyer. The big question was: will that person get a fair hearing and a chance to prove himself or herself innocent? As a result of that question, they heard about the process of having a lawyer assigned to represent a party if that person cannot afford counsel, and the process of getting a continuance in order to find an attorney. It seemed that such questions and other similar ones reflected both that the students were being attentive, and that they recognize some pitfalls which could occur in a court case, or challenges that might be encountered for litigants who are not well prepared and/or could not afford to pay an attorney to represent him or her or them. This is no surprise considering that so many families across Chicago and the surrounding suburbs are living below the poverty line or at the very least facing serious financial challenges, many of those related to the impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic which caused the closure or downsizing of a great many businesses, both local and corporate, and thus the loss of jobs or a reduction in work time or pay.
Student College Scholarship Application Process & What WE Learned About Student Aspirations From Their Essays
Another component of the WE Ed Day Tours is the opportunity to apply for a WE college scholarship which offers a certain number of such scholarships for which only those students who attended the tours are eligible to apply. As a result of the high turnout for the Virtual Ed Day this year, we had one of the highest numbers of applications submitted in several years, that being twenty-five, all vying for two to four scholarships and several gift cards for excellence in various components of the application process, from ‘Best Essay’ and ‘Community Service Standout’ to ‘Stellar Scholar’ and ‘Resilient Rising Star.’
What all the WE leaders and dedicated volunteers noted in reviewing the set of applications is the prevalence of themes in the essays of these articulate young women on such subjects as: being strong in the face of challenges, using your voice to make changes in your own community, the importance of voting and the related need to assure the protection of voting rights, the power of women in groups, and the value of helping those who are vulnerable. We from WE are continually grateful for the privilege of interacting with such strong and articulate young women who may indeed become leaders in their communities and beyond, or business owners, or teachers and professors, or legislators at the local, state or national levels, or scientists who will help conquer the effects of climate change, or founders of groups that can make a meaningful difference in the lives of the disenfranchised, and on and on.
WE Recommends Something You Can Do to Support the Goals of our Education Day Project
Consider what you, the reader of this article, might say to any one of these young women or their peers if/when they reach out to you for guidance or share an idea for improving a particular system, whether it is governmental or community-based or in higher education or other field, that serves, but poorly and unequally, the community in which she resides or hopes one day to reside. Be prepared, at the very least, to offer support for such an insightful and determined student in her quest to make that meaningful difference for those she recognizes as being vulnerable, trapped, and lacking in resources. Also try to offer some options or means by which this student or young adult can connect with others who are similarly inspired to improve the quality of life in the communities or families she has identified. Such support could lead to the kinds of coalitions that are both empowered and effective—and YOU will have been part of the success that is achieved for that person and many others in need of support, guidance and other resources.
Finally, WE encourages you to consider engaging your own bar group to become one of the WE Bar Partners which status offers every bar group and its member opportunities to contribute their time as volunteers for WE Education Day and also financially to enable funding of expenses that WE incurs for our ‘ordinary’ WE Ed Day. On those occasions, WE might need to help fund the buses that bring the students and their teachers to the courtrooms, and/or the lunches WE provides in the individual group settings following the student-teacher tours. In those gatherings taking place throughout the Cook County Circuit Court and suburban court systems so that the visitors have the chance to discuss and process their experiences with WE attorneys and volunteers.