KAILUA-KONA — More than 400 students sitting in the bleachers at the Kealakehe High School gymnasium stood instantly at the sound of a gavel.
Hawaii Supreme Court Justices clad in black robes walked into the gym and sat at a table, prepared to hear oral arguments for the State v. Kaneaiakala. Thursday’s satellite court proceeding was part of the Judiciary’s Courts in the Community outreach program.
“This is designed to give students a unique hands-on experience on how the judicial system works,” said Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald after the hearing.
While the Supreme Court typically meets on Oahu, the justices have tried to take the judicial process to the schools since 2012. Hearing real cases, Recktenwald said, they work to get out to communities twice a year.
About 4,000 students across the state have sat in on Hawaii Supreme Court hearings through this program. On Thursday, students from Kealakehe High School, Konawaena High School, Hawaii Preparatory Academy, Ke Kula o Ehunuikaimalino, West Hawaii Explorations Academy and West Hawaii Home School were in attendance.
“It really is an empowering program,” the chief justice said. “For us to see the students, it inspires us and recommits us to inspire justice for all.”
Part of the program involves attorneys from the West Hawaii Bar Association volunteering time at the schools to educate the students about the case they will be hearing. Donna Payesko, association president, said attorneys try to go to classes three times and put together a curriculum to teach kids about the case so they’re not lost when they watch the hearing.
“They’re invested in it by the time they come here,” Payesko said.
Payesko added it’s important that students learn how the justice system works because it gives them insight into a piece of American government.
“The attorneys share what we do and impact the leaders of tomorrow,” she said.
Evan Richards, 18, and Cheyenne Kelekoma, 17, both Kealakehe High School seniors, had been learning about State v. Kaneaiakala and doing practice hearings in class.
The case centers on defendant-appellant Bronson Kaneaiakala appealing his 2016 burglary judgment and sentencing of 10 years on grounds that the circuit court erred in denying his motion to suppress identification of the defendant.
After watching the actual oral arguments, they said, it didn’t go as they expected.
“I expected a lot more back and forth,” Kelekoma said. “There was more respect toward the justices than I realized.”
Richards was surprised by the amount of interjections by the justices during the arguments.
“It’s tough to be a lawyer,” Richards said.
Both teens felt they came away with new knowledge of the judicial process. For Richards, it made it feel real.
“It wasn’t just on TV,” he said. “It was a cool experience.”
Kelekoma enjoyed meeting Associate Justice Sabrina S. McKenna.
“I learned how relatable she is and that we can achieve anything we put our minds to,” Kelekoma said.
Na Leo TV will air a program featuring the complete oral argument and interviews — with students, Supreme Court justices, and other attendees — on Channel 53 at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, 9:30 a.m. Monday and 1 p.m. Wednesday. It will also air on Channel 54 at 7:30 tonight, 3 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 a.m. Tuesday and 12:30 p.m. May 3.