College Students Retry Supreme Court Case

Article excerpt

FROM the "all rise," to the black robes of the justices, to the lights that indicated when the time allotted for argument was about to run out, this could have been the Supreme Court of the United States.

In fact it was an imitation of the nation's highest court, but one with an eye for authenticity. The matters being argued here, through a lively exchange between lawyers and "justices," were the same argued in late March before the real court in Washington.

The case was Board of Education v. Grumet, which raises probing questions about how far government can go to accommodate the needs and traditions of a religious minority without violating the US Constitution's ban against the "establishment" of religion.

Specifically, did state and local authorities in New York stay within constitutional boundaries when they set up a special public school, with its own district and school board, for handicapped children from the Hasidic Jewish community of Kiryas Joel, north of New York City?

The Kiryas Joel case was getting a post-Supreme Court airing in an auditorium at Connecticut College, a liberal-arts school with a taste for innovation. This particular idea - researching and rearguing a high-court case - was conceived by government professor Wayne Swanson, author of a textbook on church-state legal issues.

"When the case suddenly appeared in the news last fall," Mr. Swanson recalls, "I thought it would be fun to study this case just as the Supreme Court is studying it."

That idea sprouted into a seminar for nine students who would later serve as Connecticut College's "supreme court." Swanson had his students delve into the Kiryas Joel case and all previous Supreme Court cases that bore on it. They also scrutinized the records of the various high-court justices on church-state issues.

Beyond this research, Swanson wanted his students to attend the March 30 US Supreme Court session at which Kiryas Joel would be argued, and he wanted the restaging of that event in New London to involve the same lawyers who had displayed their talents in Washington.

The first task, getting 10 seats (the nine seminar members plus Swanson) in the Supreme Court audience, took some doing. A letter from the students to each justice explaining their project finally did the trick. The second task, getting the lawyers to repeat their performance at Connecticut College, was judged nigh impossible by Swanson's colleagues. …