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
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
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. …