When retired judge Angela Robinson asked about the Fourth Amendment’s applicability to a case, she received a sharp analysis in response — not from lawyers, but from the eighth-graders at Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet.
Robinson got that legal advice from 45 students who’ve been learning about the Bill of Rights in social-studies class, when she visited this past week for Constitution Day.
Robinson has been coming to Mauro-Sheridan, an elementary school in Westville, for 21 years straight, trying to drum up interest in a career in law, especially for racial minorities who are underrepresented in the field.
The visit revealed how much middle-schoolers can learn about the law, early, if they get the chance.
“I want to encourage all of you — and all young people like you — to become part of the legal profession,” Robinson told the students. “Is that something that might happen?” After a pause, a few of the eighth-graders gave an unsure yes.
Robinson herself grew up in Newhallville, graduated from Rutgers University and Yale Law School, and started her career by working on medical malpractice cases.
In 1998, Gov. John Rowland nominated her to the bench. At 33 years old, she was the youngest judge in the state. Robinson served on the bench for two decades, hearing almost every type of case in courtrooms across the state.
Robinson had the students in Mauro-Sheridan’s library guess the different matters she presided over.
“Am I allowed to say this: felony charges?”
“That’s right,” Robinson said. For two decades, she’d done all of those in her stints hearing felonies and misdemeanor charges in the criminal division, “accident or disputes” in civil division, plus family, juvenile and housing court.
After she left the bench, she returned to Wiggin and Dana, where she’s now the firm’s chief diversity officer. She said she went back to practicing law, she said, partly because she wanted to change the demographics of the attorneys who used to appear before her.
At the Mauro-Sheridan visit last Thursday, Robinson introduced Jonathan Tross, a six-foot-eight-inch former basketball forward who played in three March Madness tournaments in college, now an associate at Wiggin and Dana. As in a cross-examination in court, Robinson prodded Tross to talk about how his life had still turned out to be “fantastic,” even though he never played professional ball.
“I come here a lot, and a lot of you tell me you want to play sports. But making a living playing sports is a very, very different thing,” Robinson told the students. “I want you to continue to do the things you love. If you like continue playing sports, and consider that maybe the goal for your life will end up being a lawyer, like Jonathan, or a doctor or a computer scientist. There’s so many different things you can do.”
Law is among the least diverse professions in the country. Eight-five percent of attorneys are white, the American Bar Association reported last year. Among partners at law firms, the numbers are even smaller: only 3.3 percent are Asian, 1.8 percent are African-American, and 2.4 percent are Hispanic.
The reasons diversity could change the dynamics in so many courtrooms were readily apparent on Thursday, as Mauro-Sheridan’s eighth-graders provided incisive takes on policing.
As Tross explained the Constitution’s mechanisms, like how our two-tiered system of “federalism” differs from a confederacy or a unitary government, students tried to connect the abstract terms back to their lived experience.
“Is that why some people say it’s better to go to federal jail than state jail?” one girl asked.
“Umm, I’m not sure why would anyone would think it would be better to go to the federal jail,” Tross said. “There’s definitely different things that each of these different governments handles. So umm.” He changed the subject.
The students started to fidget as Tross went through the president’s “express powers” to levy taxes and raise wages, but they whipped to attention as he brought up a recent lawsuit that challenged the government’s authority.
In 2011, two police departments outside of Las Vegas arrested a family after they refused to let officers set up a lookout to spy on the neighbors next door as part of a domestic-violence investigation, he said.
“They don’t have a warrant?” one boy asked, before Tross could finish telling the story.
When Robinson asked what they thought about the case, they clamored to explain their views. “One at a time,” she said.
“It’s illegal because the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant.” “I feel like back then it was easy to get away with it.” “They’re taking advantage of the power that they have.”
Tross said the case had actually relied on the rarely invoked Third Amendment, which prohibits the government from quartering soldiers in a person’s home. But the federal judge who heard the case decided that local police departments weren’t the same as the federal military that was described in that Constitutional amendment.
When Robinson polled the class, every student said they disagreed with the ruling.
That’s why she went on that it was so important for the youngsters to live up to their role as engaged citizens.
“The Bill of Rights gives us a lot of rights, but it also comes with responsibilities,” she said. “We have to treat each other with respect, we have to listen to one another. It’s hard to do that every day. But we get a lot further with our rights if we fulfill our responsibilities.”