Chief Justice Reiber talks civics at Mt. Abe

BRISTOL — Paul Reiber, chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, on Friday at Mount Abraham Union High School kicked off a series of talks he’ll deliver around the state, the goal of which is to further educate students about their country’s judiciary system.
Dubbed “Beyond Labels,” Reiber hopes to emphasize in the discussions the importance of escaping what he calls our society’s “tendency to try and boil down problems into easy and articulable phrases,” that can lead to over-simplified judgments. It’s a problem that he believes is rampant in today’s culture.
Social Studies teacher Greg Clark invited Reiber to speak to his “Age of Legality” class of seniors as a part of their unit on the judicial system. Clark also invited students from Scott Beckwith’s “We the People” class, along with any other juniors or seniors who have expressed interest in attending the lecture.
“The kids are not used to this kind of thing, and he’s not used to talking to the kids,” Clark said. “But he’s very intelligent and well-prepared and this is a great opportunity for everyone. We’re all kind of feeling our way around.”
Reiber noted that it’s not every day that he gets to speak in front of a classroom, but said he jumps at the opportunity whenever it presents itself.
“I do this every time I’m asked to do it, but I’m not asked very often,” he said.
Reiber hopes that this classroom visit will be the first of many. Soon, he said, he is going to be involved in starting a project that will get local judges into schools and classrooms all over the state to help educate high school students about civics.
“The problem lies in a lack of education about the role of the judiciary, which is why I’m here,” he said during his presentation.
During the hour-and-a-half — which didn’t leave time for the students to ask questions — that Reiber spoke to the students, he discussed topics including illustrative cases where court rulings dramatically changed the law, famous cases that exemplify the judiciary at its best, and even the effects of media pressure on judges.
“Do we want, as a society, for judges to make decisions based on what’s going on outside the window?” Reiber asked the students at one point.
Reiber attempted to put his presentation in terms that his teenage audience could better relate to. The best way to talk about all of this with students, he said, “is with illustrations.” One case that Reiber particularly likes to share with a younger audience is that of Roper v. Simmons, a 2005 case that determined that capital punishment should not be performed on offenders who committed crimes when they were under age 18. The case overruled a 1989 ruling that had stated that those above the age of 16 could be subject to capital punishment.
“The Roper case is particularly useful in this situation,” Reiber said, explaining that talking about a case that concerns a 17-year-old helps to bring the lesson closer to home.
“What if this state had the death penalty still?” Reiber asked. “What if they still imposed it against minors?”
Reiber attempted to engage the students by emphasizing how these rulings, both the particularly notable or famous ones and the everyday ones, truly affect them all.
“The decisions that are made by courts affect every one of you,” Reiber said.
Reporter Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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