SCALES Program Brings Tennessee Supreme Court to Columbia

December 9, 2021

Students from 15 Middle Tennessee high schools gathered in Columbia last week to hear two live court cases pending before the Tennessee Supreme Court as part of the SCALES project, which stands for Supreme Court Advancing the Legal Education for Students. The project, founded in 1995, has touched more than 500 high schools across the state and won the national Sandra Day O’Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education in 2016.

“Because of the pandemic, this was our first SCALES event since November 2019,” said Chief Justice Roger A. Page. “We were thrilled to be back live before the students. Hearing these cases is one of our favorite events of the year. A tremendous amount of work goes into this event and we extend our gratitude to the judges and attorneys of the 22nd judicial district, our hosts at Columbia Central High School, and all of the teachers and students who worked to bring a perfect event together.”

The participating schools included: Agathos Classical School, Columbia Academy, Columbia Central High School, Culleoka Unit School, Giles County High School, Hampshire Unit School, Lawrence County High School, Loretto High School, Mt. Pleasant High School, Richland High School, Santa Fe Unit School, Spring Hill High School, Summertown High School and Zion Christian Academy.

During SCALES, students are broken into two groups and each group watches live oral arguments for a pending case. The Supreme Court, however, is the final appellate court in the state, which means each case previously had a decision issued in a trial court and an intermediate appellate court – either the Tennessee Court of Appeals or Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals – before reaching the Supreme Court. Oral arguments before the Supreme Court, which are time-limited, tend to be precise and narrowly focused, which can make it difficult for a casual observer to follow.  To address this issue, dozens of local judges and attorneys visit the participating schools prior to oral arguments to brief the students on the judicial system in general as well as the specific cases they will hear. Judge Christopher Sockwell organized the volunteer effort this year, as well as worked directly with the school district on many of the logistics.

Volunteer judges and lawyers included: Judge Ryan Durham, Judge Jake Hubbell, Judge Russ Parkes, Maury County Clerk & Master Larry Roe, David Bates, Christian Cahill, Amanda Castillo, Julie Heffington, Patricia A. Jones, Ed Lancaster, Bevin Lyle, Dawn Moore, Patty Sellars, Beth Oschack Tarter, and Jason Whatley.

After the oral arguments are finished and the justices move into “chambers” for private deliberations, the students have the unique opportunity to question the attorneys of record for the cases on anything from why they made specific arguments to why they went to law school. Arguing the cases before the Court were Brennan M. Wingerter, Assistant Public Defender – Appellate Director, Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference and Ronald L. Coleman, Assistant Attorney General, Tennessee Attorney General Criminal Appeals Division on one case and Ben M. Rose of RoseFirm, PLLC in Brentwood and Jeffrey Spark of Nashville on the second case.

“My first reaction to the SCALES project was ‘Wow – I really wish my high school had done something like this for us,’” Wingerter said. “As a former law professor, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to participate in such an incredible educational experience. Having that large of an audience was certainly more intimidating than the usual 10-15 people who attend appellate arguments in the courtrooms, but knowing that we were giving the students a chance to see a real case and learn about how the law impacts our clients made it all worth it.”

The Maury County Bar Association, led by current President Patrick M. Carter, hosted a reception the evening before court at the Mulehouse. In addition to welcoming the Supreme Court justices to the 22nd Judicial District, Judge Sockwell and Mr. Carter also recognized Judge Stella Hargrove for her long and distinguished service as a sitting judge in the area. They noted she often volunteered for the most complex and emotionally taxing cases.  Maury County Superintendent Michael Hickman and Columbia Central High School Principal Kevin Eady were also recognized for the long-effort they put in to essentially turn a high school auditorium into a working courtroom while bringing in students from 15 local high schools. The planning took nearly two years, and their efforts included scheduling changes, enhanced security, parking shifts, to name a few adjustments that needed to be made.

The decisions of the two cases heard during SCALES will be available on in the coming months. Photos from the event are available here.The two cases were livestreamed and the oral arguments are available here and here.