It’s a teenager up at the bench, sitting behind it, next to the judge, and it’s not something a lawyer in Utah sees every day in a Salt Lake City Courtroom. But as the Deseret News reports, it’s a program to get high school students from the area interested and involved in the legal system from a young age. Some asked why we’re in probate court, and my response was because I am a probate lawyer. Teenagers are given the opportunity to shadow judges in their everyday duties as they work through the dockets, provided their behavior matches up to courtroom expectations.
Called the Judge for a Day program, it’s not new, but it does often take the average lawyer in Utah off guard when they see a teen sitting up next to the judge. One pair, Judge Randall Skanchy and East High School junior Sam Bennett saw about 175 appearances “and conducted two sessions of drug court” during the day they worked side-by-side. If that isn’t an accurate introduction into courtroom practice on a daily basis, it would be difficult to find something that teens could experience that comes closer.
The Judge for a Day program originated a decade ago, and provides stark relief to the dramatized perspective thrown up on TV through shows like Law and Order, The Practice, or event Judge Judy or programming on Court TV. For kids interested in pursuing a career in the legal field, whether becoming a clerk, judge, or lawyer in Utah, this program helps them gain a more realistic perspective of the action.
And it’s gotten enthusiastic response from the Salt Lake City legal community. Judge Skanchy hosts a student every year, for example, and he thinks the program serves more than just those aspiring to become a lawyer in Utah—Judge Skanchy hopes “that understanding the courts will help Utahns feel more comfortable should they find themselves interacting with the judicial system” in any capacity. Being party to a lawsuit or involved in some way in a criminal case, as a witness or the accused alike, the experience of being involved in the courts is “probably the most important thing they have going on in their lives at that time…The outcome is important to them in a thousand different ways. It’s important for them to feel like they’re safe in court and they have the opportunity to be heard.”
And even while some attorneys might feel that not everyone has the privilege of appearing in a courtroom with such a generous and fair-minded adjudicator, others would insist that it is judges with outlooks like Skanchy’s that make the program worthwhile. Throughout the state, 23 students will be participating in the program spending time with Utah judges until the end of May. While high school student Sam Bennett has reported that he’s not sure whether he wants to pursue a career in law, he says his experience has certainly benefitted his understanding of the system.
Words of wisdom from the teen: “There are good things it can bring to people’s lives and positive effects it has on society. It’s not just a punishment. It’s a way to help people live the lives they should be living.”
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