Less than ten minutes into oral arguments before the Minnesota Supreme Court on a St. Paul gang member’s appeal of a 2014 murder conviction, Associate Justice Alan Page pressed the appellant’s attorney to clarify her argument.
“I have to say I’m a little lost (on) the distinction between ‘markedly similar’ and ‘substantially similar,’” Page said, directing his comment to Jennifer Workman Jessness, an assistant state public defender. “What’s the difference?”
If a substantial portion of the audience felt just as lost amid the flurry of legal jargon, you could hardly blame them. Most were high school students, and many of them were likely witnessing live court proceedings for the first time.
Edison High School hosted the state’s highest court May 11 for one of two “traveling oral arguments” held each year in Minnesota schools. It was like a reverse fieldtrip for the students: Instead of piling into a school bus for a visit to the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, the court came to them.
Even if that early exchange between Page and Jessness left the impression that the audience was in for an hour of arguments drier than law library dust, enough true-crime details leaked out during the session to keep the audience engaged: talk of revenge, a murder weapon tossed in the Mississippi River and a suspect’s location determined with cell phone tower evidence, just like something out of the hit podcast “Serial.”
It was the justices’ first visit to a Minneapolis Public Schools site since Urban vs. The American Legion was argued at South High School in 2006. Juniors and seniors from both South and North high schools joined Edison students in the school’s recently renovated auditorium, and the district broadcast the proceedings to other students both online and on public access television.
Before the seven justices took the stage, the students and district officials in the audience got a briefing on the finer points of State of Minnesota vs. True Thao from Hennepin County Chief Judge Peter Cahill.
The case involved an October 2013 drive-by shooting outside a St. Paul bar, the Moonshine Saloon, that left Adlai Xiong dead and two of his cousins wounded. True Thao, allegedly a member of a rival gang, went on trial for the shooting in Ramsey County District Court, and in April 2014 Thao was found guilty on multiple counts, including first-degree murder for the benefit of a gang. Judge Judith Tilsen sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In Minnesota, appeals of first-degree premeditated murder cases skip the Court of Appeals and go directly to the Supreme Court. As Cahill explained, the justices were focused on just four key questions in the appeal: Should the judge have allowed evidence of one of Thao’s prior crimes at trial? What about the expert testimony on gang activity? Did the judge err when she gave the jury their instructions? And was the sentence of life without parole also in error?
The students had been instructed to watch silently, and there was barely a whisper in the crowd as the justices peppered Jessness with questions. After half an hour, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Pete Marker rose to make the state’s case, and when a school bell rang there was the muffled sound of students passing in the hallways outside.
Jessness wrapped up her final five-minute rebuttal quickly and asked the justices if they had any remaining questions. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, seated in the center of her colleagues, glanced left, then right and responded: “It looks like we’re good.”
Then it was time for a costume change. The justices disappeared from the stage to slip out of their black judicial robes and then walked back on a few minutes later for a question-and-answer session with the students.
As is the court’s practice, Gildea directed the responses, passing the mic among her associate justices. Several times it landed in the oversized hands of Page, the NFL Hall of Famer who’s nearing the end of his improbable second career in law.
On his 70th birthday in August, Page will reach the age of mandatory retirement from the Supreme Court. He was first elected to the court in 1992 and has participated in every one of the court’s traveling oral arguments since the program launched with a trip to Rochester in 1995.
It was his turn to answer when one of the students asked who or what inspired the justices to enter the legal field and become a judge. For Page, that inspiration was “the notion of equal justice under the law,” he said, adding that he was 9 years old in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that ended legal segregation in public schools.
“The power of that decision has inspired me throughout my life,” Page said.
When he later accepted a plaque commemorating his years on the court from Michael Walker, director of the district’s Office of Black Male Student Achievement, Page said as long as students remained involved in their communities, they, too, would have a chance to “change the future.”
“You all have the potential to do great things,” Page said, “and I hope that you take advantage of those opportunities that will put you in position to do those things.”
Photo by Dylan Thomas
Office for Black Male Student Achievement Director Michael Walker presents a plaque to retiring Associate Justice Alan Page.