Supreme Learning Moment for Seven SMHS Students

It’s not every day that a high school student gets to sit in a room while an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court speaks for more than an hour on the law and globalization.
Seven San Marino High School students were treated to this heady opportunity one evening last week, as the Huntington Library hosted Justice Stephen Breyer, who is crisscrossing the country to promote his new book, “The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities.”
They were suitably impressed.
“He did a good job of not necessarily imposing his political beliefs,” student Chaz Davis said of Breyer, 77, a member of the court’s liberal bloc. “He talked about principles. It wasn’t, ‘This is how it is. This is how it should be.’ He didn’t really do that, which I really appreciated.”
Classmate Emerson Liu agreed, adding, “The crux of the argument came down to being informed as citizens. Our obligation as the next generation is to be informed about issues, both domestic and around the world. And the only way, really, to build up a strong global community is to see what’s going on and not be stuck into ourselves.
“The thing he presented about being informed, no matter what political party you are, no matter what views you have, is something that all parties can benefit from.”
The SMHS students who attended were closely attuned to the evening’s subject matter. According to government teacher Peter Paccone, who accompanied them, they are variously involved in mock trial, speech and debate, an advanced-placement government class, the YMCA’s Youth and Government program and ASB — “or, in most instances, a combination thereof.”
The attendees were Davis, Gregory Eng, Harika Kalidhindi, Nathan Lam, Emerson Liu, Rachelle Liu and Sarah Sabih. Also accompanying them were Assistant Principal Doug Berry, School Board member Chris Norgaard and Alice Petrossian, former president of the Association of California School Administrators.
“I think it’s always powerful when students get to hear firsthand from the very people they learn about in class,” Paccone said. “[Breyer] mentioned about five or six [Supreme Court] cases. Every one of those cases we teach. There wasn’t a case he presented that either these students haven’t read about or will soon. What great reinforcement is that?”
Breyer’s lecture, on-stage interview with appellate Judge Frances Rothschild and book signing were tied to a current Huntington exhibit, “Magna Carta: Law and Legend, 1215-2015,” which runs through Oct. 12.
Breyer cited Article 29 of the ancient document, and said, “King John says he will not imprison or ‘disseise’ the barons or any free man except by judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. It means you won’t act arbitrarily. I can’t think of anything more important.”
He cited a recent case in which a man from the Dominican Republic was detained in the United States without formal charges until his wife brought it to the attention of a judge. “[The ruling was] that if a person is not being held according to the law, he’s out,” Breyer said. “And there it is, right there in the Magna Carta!”
SMHS’ Kalidhindi said afterward, “I’m in mock trial and do pre-trial. We look at cases and look at nuances and how that applies to the situation we have, but he took that a step further: It’s not two or three cases in our system, it’s thousands of cases all over the world. That was an interconnection I hadn’t really thought about.”
Eng added: “He related everything he was talking about to the big picture. It was this fabric of different stories, anecdotes and legal foibles to show how everything matters.”
At one juncture, in fact, Breyer quickly linked Runnymede (where the Magna Carta was signed), the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., three years later. The presence of U.S. paratroopers that were ordered in by President Dwight Eisenhower to protect nine black students enrolled at the school was a powerful symbol, Breyer said, “so people will understand we have a tradition in this country, and it is the rule of law.”
Norgaard, a lawyer, said of Breyer, “He really was, I thought, so inspiring. It was not dry at all; he made it come alive. And it seemed to have a relevance to everyday life. … I think our students and educators were inspired to create the future with the best of the past.”

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