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By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

September 19, 2023

When explaining why they take time away from their busy courtrooms to teach students about the Constitution, two Indiana judges got a bit reflective as they explained it is one way to repay some of what their hometowns had given them.

“It sounds hokey, but there’re so many people that would say, ‘Jennings County, small town, has done nothing good for me,’ but for me it was nothing but positives,” Jennings County Circuit Court Judge Murielle “Ellie” Bright said. “…  Nothing but positive things came from my community. I think I have an obligation to repay that to the next generation.”

Bright is one of 46 judges from around the state who are commemorating Constitution Day in 2023. To help celebrate the signing of the nation’s founding document on Sept. 17, 1787, the Indiana Supreme Court encourages judicial officers to connect with schools and other organizations to instill a deeper understanding of the Constitution.

This year, the Indiana judicial officers will meet with nearly 3,500 students and civic group members.

Bright first participated in Constitution Day last year. She visited one elementary school and was worried the youngsters would be bored.

But the students were “super inquisitive,” creating a challenge for her to keep up. They were curious about what judges do, how old is the county courthouse, what is the longest sentence she has ever imposed and has she ever met television star Judge Judy? This year, she has a game plan as she welcomes to her courtroom three classes from Brush Creek Elementary, Scipio Elementary and St. Mary’s School from Sept. 15 through Oct. 5.

Bright knows the judiciary is the least understood branch of government, because, as she pointed out, people do not engage with it, unless they have jury duty or have to appear in court for a criminal or civil proceeding.

When talking to the students, the judge walks them through trial procedure and tells them things like the courtrooms are open to the public.

“I try to keep it on track for, at least, 10 or 15 minutes and then it kind of goes to wherever they want to take it,” Bright said. “But I’m completely fine with that. I think it’s a learning experience. Let’s answer the questions that they’re curious about.”

Montgomery County Superior Court Judge Daniel Petrie also remembers students’ questions veering a little off topic, when he taught one class at Crawfordsville High School during Constitution Day last year.

To show the teenagers how the 236-year-old Constitution is relevant to today’s society, Petrie pulled some decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court. And to keep the discussion really engaging, he focused on the cases tackling questions about searches and seizures of students’ property on school grounds.

Students inquired about whether the state actor in that situation was the school principal or law enforcement officers as well as the differences between searching personal property in their home versus in their school. One student then began discussing what his father had told him, and Petrie cut the question off, telling the student he had to stop to preserve “your dad’s Fifth Amendment rights.”

“I’m hoping to convey that this document isn’t just something that you learn about in school and forget about,” Petrie said. “It’s a framework for a functioning society and (the students learn) how that applies to them and their parents and everybody else in their life.”

Brayden Montgomery, government and economics teacher at Crawfordsville High, said Petrie was a “pretty big hit” among the students. So when the judge reached out again this year, he was scheduled to speak to four classes on Oct. 11.

Montgomery noted the seniors in his classes are going to be voting and engaging in civic life very soon. But their introduction to the judiciary has largely been through television shows, movies and popular novels. Having a sitting judge come and answer their questions “does kind of pique their curiosity” and teaches them about the third branch of government that is often obscured to the public.

“He did a good job, I think, connecting it to current stuff which is always better. For people who are new to civic engagement, that kind of makes it relevant to their lives,” Montgomery said. “I thought he did a really good job of that.”

Petrie, like Bright, is excited about helping the students expand their knowledge of the Constitution. And, like Bright, he sees his volunteerism on Constitution Day as a way of caring for the community that cared for him.

“It sounds incredibly hokey, but I was raised with a sense of civic responsibility,” Petrie said. “Both my parents, growing up, were very involved in the community. It’s just kind of what you did. This is an opportunity to do something. It, also, mixes it up and hopefully leaves a lasting impression for some high school kids, ideally in a positive way.”

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and IndyStar.com, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal. 

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