DACA, death penalty, checks & balances: Nebraska Supreme Court fields questions in Schuyler, chief justice’s alma mater
SCHUYLER — Delvan del-Cid stood at a microphone Friday morning facing the Nebraska Supreme Court from the familiar, glossy wood floor of the Schuyler High School gym — and the eleventh-grader had a question.
“Do you think DACA is a breach of the executive order?”
Del-Cid was asking about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program created through executive order by former President Barack Obama to protect unauthorized immigrants who came to America as young children from deportation, which President Donald Trump is trying to end.
The Supreme Court justices — along with Chief U.S. District Judge John Gerrard — had turned the Schuyler gym and stage into a temporary courtroom Friday morning as part of an education and outreach program begun a few years ago in which the high court hears oral arguments at schools.
This time, Gerrard, a former state Supreme Court justice, joined his former colleagues because he and Chief Justice Mike Heavican have more than their judicial duties in common: both graduated from Schuyler.
The school gym is familiar all these years later, but the school’s demographics have changed dramatically. Now, more than 80 percent of the school’s students are Hispanic, one of the reasons the high court chose Schuyler, bringing along state court interpreter Vladimir Bazan to help highlight the court’s interpreter program.
Bazan translated Gerrard’s explanation of how the court system works, including the 35 interpreters who work with the court — a program Gerrard helped start.
“It’s very important for everyone to know they’ll be treated fairly,” Gerrard said after the event ended, and it’s particularly important for people whose first language isn’t English to understand they’ll be on an equal playing field with the courts.
Still, the justices may not have answered del-Cid’s question about DACA quite as he’d anticipated.
Heavican told the student the court couldn’t comment on an issue that might come before it, that it would violate ethics rules prohibiting judges from giving their personal opinions.
Then Gerrard addressed him.
“What do you think?” You’re here, he said, make your argument.
Del-Cid didn’t hesitate. He couldn’t talk about it from a legal standpoint, he said, but he could tell the justices how he felt.
“What the president is doing is not fair,” he said.
His parents are from Honduras, he said, and are here under Temporary Protected Status, a protection given to people in the wake of humanitarian disasters in their home countries. The Trump administration announced in May that it was going to stop granting the protection to 57,000 Hondurans who’ve been living in the United States for 20 years. That means del-Cid’s parents would have to leave by January 2020.
“Which gives me a lot of stress,” he told the justices.
Gerrard, who’d played ball in the Schuyler gymnasium more than 40 years earlier, thanked him.
“We can’t rule,” he said. “But you have been heard.”
And the juniors and seniors filling the folding chairs and bleachers behind their classmate applauded.
Del-Cid was followed by other students who asked the justices all sorts of questions, some they could answer, some they could not.
How did they feel about the death penalty? About gun violence? How do they set aside emotion to make decisions? Can and should religious organizations have a role in politics? Can Supreme Court justices be fired? How long does it take to become a Supreme Court judge? Why are you here?
The justices explained how justices are appointed and retained, they encouraged students to vote and listen to court proceedings, they explained why they couldn’t weigh in on issues that might come before them, they talked about how they became judges and they made clear why they’d come to Schuyler.
“The Supreme Court heard cases in this particular high school because the chief justice went to high school here,” said Heavican, who graduated in 1965.
“We really believe we have an obligation to make sure people understand the judicial system and understand how important the judicial system is to our democracy,” he said.
Before the questions, the court was in session and attorneys came to the stage to argue two cases: One about search-and-seizure laws in a drug case; the other about the liability of a dog owner for the actions of his pup.
In the first case, a woman who’d been stopped by a Nebraska State Patrol trooper in Gering argued the smell of marijuana is no longer enough to give law enforcement officers cause to search a car, since she was close to Colorado, where marijuana is legal. The smell, her attorney argued, could have remained from when she’d smoked it legally across the state border.
In the second case, a man who worked for a ranch in Alliance was trampled by a cow after a dog owned by the rancher nipped at the cow’s leg. The question for the judges: While dogs are considered property of their owners, is that owner liable for damages caused by the dog’s actions even if they weren’t directed specifically at the person injured?
Del-Cid said he enjoyed hearing the arguments (especially the one about the dog), and liked being able to see a court proceeding unfold.
Jim Kasik, the athletic director at Schuyler and assistant principal at the high school, said school officials were excited to work with the justices to bring them there, because it’s more powerful than just learning in class how the court system works.
“It’s something they never get to experience,” he said.
And so they took advantage of it, including a student who asked how the judicial nomination process reflects the principle of checks and balances.
Gerrard seemed to acknowledge the rancorous nomination process of Brett Kavanaugh, the newest U.S. Supreme Court justice, then appealed to those gathered in the Schuyler gym.
“The system is broken right now,” he said. “I would say the Senate (which is supposed to examine candidate’s qualifications) is out of balance at this point of time ... but things will wax and wane, and I trust with your particular generation that you’ll hold the Senate and the President and all of us accountable for how the checks and balances should work.”