Clovis News

Valley students get supreme lesson in justice

During a visit Tuesday to Fresno, California's top judge found himself in unfamiliar territory -- surrounded by student journalists with free rein to ask him almost anything.

At the 5th District Court of Appeal, nine Bullard High School students were given rare access to Ronald M. George, chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

They didn't waste the opportunity.

Bridget Saito asked the chief justice about same-sex marriages.

"The right of marriage is not restricted to the opposite sex," George said.

Madison Jones asked him about the death penalty.

"It's dysfunctional," George replied, largely because it takes 20 to 25 years to carry out a death sentence. He said a reasonable time frame would be five years to figure out whether the conviction was legally valid.

The 20-minute news conference was part of the California Supreme Court's special outreach session in Fresno. It was the court's first visit to Fresno in eight years, and part of a once-a-year educational road show. About 300 high school students from throughout the Valley heard legal arguments in five cases that have statewide importance.

In the first session, about 60 students were exposed to the one of the bigger cases -- Martinez v. UC Regents, a class-action lawsuit that challenges California's practice of allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state fees at public colleges and universities.

Before the session started, however, 14 students asked the seven high court justices questions about the legal system. Unlike during the news conference, the questions were given to the justices beforehand.

"What is the review process you use in deciding whether to grant or deny a petition?" asked Nicole Meier, a junior at Clovis North High.

Typically, 8 million lawsuits are filed statewide each year, but the high court only writes about 100 opinions a year, George said. To get selected for review, the case must first have statewide importance, he said. Justices also look for cases in which there are conflicts in the law, he said.

Jonathan Buller, a senior at University High School, asked why it takes the high court a long time to make a final decision.

George said lawyers often file multiple legal briefs. Once the briefs are filed, a justice writes a draft opinion, George said. The remaining justices then send the author their thoughts about the opinion.

By the time the case reaches oral arguments, George said, the justices already have a preliminary opinion. At oral arguments, lawyers have one last chance to change the justices' minds, he said.

"I've seen lawyers flip a case," George said. But it's rare, he said.

Unlike during a trial, there are no juries, defendants, victims or witnesses during oral arguments. It was just lawyers stating their case. Each side got 30 minutes. And the justices interrupted them frequently to ask questions.

The students sat quietly as lawyers in the Martinez case explained the dispute, which revolves around AB 540. Opponents say it violates federal law that prohibits states from giving illegal immigrants a public benefit not provided to U.S. citizens.

Enacted eight years ago, the law says undocumented students who have attended at least three years of high school in California and have graduated can pay in-state public college fees. But the law also allows American citizens who attended school in California in the past -- but who live out of state -- to petition the college or university to pay in-state fees.

The plaintiffs -- 42 Americans from 19 states, including Robert Martinez of Arizona -- say California's law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment and federal immigration laws that prohibit states from giving illegal immigrants a public benefit not provided to U.S. citizens.

They say the law allows illegal immigrants -- who legally are not state residents -- to avoid out-of-state fees that Americans from other states must pay.

The result is that taxpayers are subsidizing undocumented students at a tune of more than $200 million a year, said the plaintiffs' lawyers -- Redwood City attorney Michael J. Brady and Kris W. Kobach, a law professor from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

But lawyers for the defendants -- the boards of regents from public colleges and universities -- argued that many undocumented college students have lived in California since they were children and their families have paid taxes.

They also say U.S. citizens have benefit from the law. Under the law, out of state U.S citizens petition the colleges or university to pay the lower in-state fees.

Afterward, some students said it was a difficult case to judge.

"If you contribute to society and pay taxes, then yes, undocumented students should be able to pay in-state fees," said Michelle Rosas, a senior at West High School in Bakersfield. "But if you don't contribute, then no."

Jonathan Buller, a senior at University High School in Fresno, said he also thinks undocumented students who have the grades to get into college should get public benefits.

"But they shouldn't receive more benefits than American students," he said.

Michelle Pham, also of Bakersfield's West High senior, said she was unable to choose sides. "Both sides have points," she said.

The justices have 90 days to make a ruling.