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Northern Michigan students see justice system in action

Warrren Mallory raises his hand to ask attorneys a question after hearing oral arguments on People v Candace Guyton at the Cheboygan Opera House.
Michael Livingston
A student raises his hand to ask attorneys a question after hearing oral arguments on People v Candace Guyton at the Cheboygan Opera House. (Photo: Michael Livingston/IPR News)

While the state Supreme Court normally hears cases in the Hall of Justice in Lansing, yesterday’s proceedings took a trip up-north.

The Cheboygan Opera House hosted Michigan’s highest court as part of a community education program that aims to give students a better understanding of the judicial process.

Students from 16 area schools were in attendance causing the historic opera house to meet capacity limits.

Under the almost 150-year-old gold ceilings, the opera house and attendees had to meet the regulations and etiquette of a real courthouse. That meant students had to dress sharp and stay quiet while justices heard oral arguments from the defense and prosecutor.

Instead of approaching the dark, wooden podium at the Hall of Justice, attorneys stomped across the opera house stage as students watched from below or above in the balcony seating.

“There are generations of people in this area who have been on the stage for school programs, either in the audience or on stage,” Opera House director Owen Goslin said. “As somebody who grew up in Cheboygan, we think of Lansing as a distant, distant place. Some of these kids may not have left Northern Michigan or even Cheboygan County. So, for the court to recognize them is huge.”

The event marks the 27th time that the Supreme Court has traveled to hear a case in a different location. The Court Community Connection Program launched in 2007 and normally holds two remote hearings a year.

The case being examined was People v. Candace Guyton which stems back to a 2019 armed robbery involving Guyton and her accomplice, Kenneth Agnew.

While Guyton plead guilty to the robbery pursuant of a plea agreement, she was charged as a third-offense habitual offender. She subsequently moved to withdraw her guilty plea on the grounds that she qualified as a second-offense habitual offender.

Guyton’s defense argues that her plea was not knowing and voluntary because the prosecutor misinformed her that by pleading guilty, she would not be prosecuted as a third habitual offender when, in fact, she could only have been prosecuted as a second habitual offender.

Following the oral arguments and while the justices discussed the arguments, Chief Commissioner Daniel Brubaker led a debrief Q&A between students and attorneys. He explained the process moving forward.

“As they are discussing the case, they’ll talk about the briefs, they’ll talk about the Court of Appeals decision, they’ll talk about the oral arguments,” he said. “They’ll pick each other's brains about what needs to happen going forward in the case and how the case should be disposed of.”

Many students asked the attorneys to clarify confusing legal jargon. One student addressed the justices at the start of the debrief by saying, “I have no idea what you guys were talking about.”

Many more said they admired the attorney's ability to speak in front of over 300 people while being probed by Michigan’s most influential justices. They asked the attorneys how long it typically takes to write an oral argument or how they decide to include certain details in their opinions.

“It definitely looked nerve-wracking,” said Kara Doden, a student at Wolverine Community Schools. “I want to be a lawyer when I grow up. So it was cool to see that kind of stuff firsthand… I definitely have a lot to learn. I wasn't so sure on some of the terms and stuff that they said. So I definitely have to educate myself.”

Spanish exchange students Mario Perec of Traverse City West High School and Claudia Blanco of Traverse City Central High School said they were most interested in the formality of the American judicial process.

“I would explain it to (somebody in Spain) just how it looked. How the people in the supreme court were dressed, how attorneys addressed them, and how they had to explain what they were defending or supporting,” Perec said.

While students left Cheboygan without a conclusion on People v. Candace Guyton, Chief Justice Elizabeth Clements said she felt assured students learned many new things about the judicial system.

“What we want them to take away is an understanding of how a court case works its way through the system in Michigan, and an interest in public service,” Clements said. “Whether they want to be an attorney, or want to be involved in the judiciary, everyone has a role to play in public service, regardless of what their future career paths are.”

The entire oral arguments were streamed live on the Cheboygan Opera House's website. The next Court Connections event will be announced in the fall. More information can be found on the Michigan Supreme Court website.

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Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.