Washington Supreme Court convenes at Clark College

Justices hear cases, answer questions, meet students during visit

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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• In 1995, the Washington Supreme Court became one of the first courts in the world to allow comprehensive coverage of court proceedings to be televised. Watch the court in action at TVW's website.

Vancouver resident Becky Pomaville enrolled in Clark College to become a paralegal with the goal of eventually earning her law degree, possibly with a specialty in appellate law.

The Washington Supreme Court's visit to Clark College on Tuesday let her see appellate law in action.

The nine justices heard three cases Tuesday in Gaiser Hall in front of an audience of nearly 100, which included Pomaville.

"I think it's fabulous," Pomaville said. "It's real-life learning instead of reading about it in a book."

About three times a year, the Washington Supreme Court leaves Olympia and visits a different part of the state to help educate the public about how the court works and to build confidence in the judiciary. Tuesday was only the second time the court has visited Clark County. The last time was in 1999, when the nine-member court convened at Fort Vancouver High School.

In the morning, the justices heard lawyers argue a case about whether Drug Court staffing meetings should be open to the public and another case about whether the Washington State Bar Association was within its right to suspend an attorney's license for two years. They didn't immediately issue decisions on the cases.

At the end of the arguments, the justices took questions from the audience.

"There are hardly any lawyers in this area who practice appellate law," Pomaville said, addressing the justices. "What is it that makes it so difficult?"

"I don't think appellate work is as complicated as most trial work is," replied Justice Debra Stephens, a former appellate attorney.

Stephens said appellate lawyers have a different rhythm of work from that of trial lawyers, and they are more focused on spotting trends in the law and turning over every rock for legal options.

"The beauty of being an appellate lawyer is you don't have to go to court very often," she said. "Most of it is on paper … You can do it on your deck chair."

Pomaville said she was delighted with Stephens' answer.

"I've been thinking about appellate law, and now after hearing what she said, I'm more interested in it," Pomaville said.

In addition to the court proceedings, the justices spoke to some Clark College classes on Monday and lunched with students Monday and Tuesday.

Stephens said the interaction allows the public to learn more about the justices and to see that practicing the law is an attainable goal.

"We are just ordinary people," Stephens said. "Some of us are the first in our families to go to college."

Clark College student Barbara Gallegos of Vancouver said she thinks of the justices as comparable to "movie stars."

"But they're very personable," she said. "They're very nice people."

The traveling court was created more than 20 years ago, possibly when Supreme Court justices were temporarily displaced from the Temple of Justice during renovations in 1988 and 1989 and had to hear cases at different locations around the state, said Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson.

"They found it was a positive experience for the citizens to know about the court and the important role it plays in their lives," Johnson said.