CARIBOU – The Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments before an audience of a different kind Tuesday as approximately 600 Aroostook County pupils sat in on cases before the high court, including a precedent-setting grandparents’ appeal.
Justices reviewed four cases at the Caribou Performing Arts Center, located at Caribou High School, in an effort that one justice said gives the public an opportunity to understand better what the appellate court does.
According to officials, this is the first time in nearly a decade that the court has held a session in Aroostook County. Noting that it was very unusual for the court to sit anywhere other than a courthouse, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley told the youth Tuesday that it was equally unique for a large gathering of pupils to sit in on its proceedings. Along with hearing the oral arguments, the pupils from Caribou, Fort Fairfield, Fort Kent, Limestone, Madawaska and Presque Isle had the opportunity to ask the attorneys who gave the arguments questions about the cases after the court recessed.
During one of the recesses, Saufley explained the court’s visit to Aroostook County.
“We try to get out of Portland on a regular basis,” she said. “We do that so the public has a greater opportunity to see what the appellate court is all about. It makes the court more accessible and better understood by the public.”
The high court chooses two or three areas to visit every year. It chose Aroostook County, in part, to honor its newest member, Justice Warren Silver, whose hometown is Presque Isle. Saufley said the justices were delighted at both the quality of the facilities they were using for the day and also at the number of pupils in attendance.
When school officials learned the high court was making a visit, Ron Willey, coordinator for the student sit-in and social studies department head for Caribou High School, said officials realized how little pupils actually knew about the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
“We’re hoping this will pique students’ interest in law, especially this level of law,” Willey said Tuesday.
Saufley offered similar sentiments.
“We’re hoping they get a better, more visual idea of what the third branch looks like, what the judicial branch is doing,” she said.
On a personal note, Saufley said she hoped seeing the court in action would encourage students to seek careers in the law field.
Though pupils did not get the opportunity to sit in on any criminal cases, the youths had a chance to hear cases that originated in Aroostook County, including one that questions the constitutionality of a section of state law.
In Conlogue v. Conlogue, Herschel and Jane Conlogue of Littleton are appealing 2nd District Court Judge Bernard O’Mara’s rejection of their petition for visitation with Molly Conlogue, 5, of Oakfield, the daughter of their deceased son, Kevin Conlogue.
O’Mara ruled that a section of the Maine Grandparents Visitation Act was unconstitutional because it interfered with a parent’s fundamental right to govern the care, custody and control of her child.
The 1995 act allows grandparents to seek visitation if at least one of the child’s parents or legal guardians has died.
Kevin Conlogue died in an accident on the family’s Littleton dairy farm. After what lawyers called “a falling out” in the family, Kevin Conlogue’s widow, Patricia Conlogue, did not allow the grandparents to have contact with Molly Conlogue.
Norman Trask, attorney for Herschel and Jane Conlogue, argued before the high court that the law allows grandparents to petition for visitation when a child’s parent has died. He said the Conlogues are not trying to infringe on a parent’s fundamental liberty interests.
“We’re trying to help the grandparents and grandchild to establish a relationship that was lost,” Trask said.
Patricia Conlogue’s attorney, Stephen Nelson, argued that this was a case where the Legislature exceeded its authority under the legislation. He said that unless a parent is unfit or a child’s welfare is threatened, grandparents should not be granted automatic standing to intervene in a parent’s right to raise a child just because one of the child’s parents or legal guardians has died.
Although the justices heard arguments in the case, there is no deadline by which a decision much be issued.
Other appeals the justices heard Tuesday include:
. Whether a trespasser may recover damages he was required to pay by his trespass from the person who purported to sell him the land by warranty deed.
. Whether Bar Harbor residents who were forced to move their home because of a surveying error should be able to recover costs and damages from the surveyor.
. Whether a Maine woman can construct a permanent 90-foot private recreational pier from her property on Mount Desert Island out into the bay.
The chief justice said the court generally issues its decisions three to nine months after it has heard oral arguments.