The highest court in the state is not the Supreme Court, although New York does have one. The Court of Appeals is the Empire State’s highest court, and a group of Siena students visited there February 13 to learn firsthand how it works.
The students are enrolled in a class on the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments taught by Leonard Cutler Ph.D., professor of political science and pre-law advisor. They were hosted by Joseph O’Rourke ’12, who clerks for Associate Justice Leslie Stein.
They started by getting an overview of how the court operates, plus some anecdotes about the chief justice and six associate justices. The class sat in the visitors’ gallery and following a personal welcome from the bench for Siena, they heard the summaries of three cases – two criminal and one civil.
After the judges recessed, the students got to sit in the justices’ seats in the rostrum and ask Justice Stein questions about her career and life on the court.
“I've read several cases from New York's Court of Appeals these past three semesters, but having the chance to actually observe some in person and listen to the attorneys and judges converse with one another displayed an example of legal decorum that can't be described through textbooks,” said Mark Rodriguez ’20. “Our visit to the Court provided me with an entirely new perspective on New York's judicial system, and I am glad to say that the passion for law expressed by Judge Stein and others have positively contributed to my interest in the legal profession.”
Samantha DeRagon ’22 noted how a particular case showed how laws can differ by state.
“I was interested in the case involving a sex offense in which the defense was arguing that a conviction in New Jersey could not be used in a sex offender registry case in New York. The act that was considered a crime in New Jersey was not in New York. It was interesting to see how laws in various states contradict and are different and how that can affect legal proceedings in real time.
“The highlight of the visit was meeting with Judge Stein and talking to her about her experiences on the Court and getting a background look into what happens behind the scenes at the highest court in New York.”
Matthew McAuliffe ’20 added “I would argue that New York’s Court of Appeals is the second most important court in the world. Second only to the United States Supreme Court in significance, this court has decided landmark cases that have affected the rest of the nation as well as the world. One example is the famous case of People v Liberta (1983) which eliminated the marital rape exemption law. This case was decided by one of the most influential judges in New York history, the Honorable Sol Wachtler. This was an incredible experience and I hope to argue in this great court one day.”
“When I sat down, I began to think of the future ahead of me and how much I really want to be a lawyer,” said Keri Lockhart ’21. “This experience really opened my eyes to how important the decisions that are made in a courtroom really are, and how much I want to be a part of that.”
Dr. Cutler noted that before their class trip, more of the students had visited the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. than New York’s own top court.
“There was a lot of dialogue,” said Dr. Cutler. “To see how the judges work in the court was a real eye opener for them.
“The educational process never begins or ends in the classroom.”