Franklin County Law Day extols ‘cornerstones of democracy’

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 05-01-2023 7:29 PM

GREENFIELD — The local sheriff and the U.S. magistrate judge assigned to Springfield served as panelists Monday morning for a discussion about the justice system and the “workings of government” before dozens of local students and the public.

Christopher Donelan and Judge Katherine Robertson spoke inside the Franklin County Justice Center’s third-floor jury pool room about their jobs and the three branches of government. This year’s Law Day theme was “Cornerstones of Democracy,” and the event was organized by representatives of the Massachusetts Trial Court, Franklin County Bar Association and the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office as part of the American Bar Association’s Law Day 2023.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan moderated the discussion before the panelists took questions from the audience, made up mostly of eighth and 10th graders from Four Rivers Charter Public School. He explained President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 designated May 1 as Law Day.

“It was designed to teach and educate, really inform people, about the workings of government,” Sullivan said before asking students to raise their hands if they had taken a civics class, prompting just a few hands to go up. “Civics used to be a fundamental course in every high school in America. And I think we’ve gone awry. We need civics, because you … are the people of the future. You’re going to decide who your governor is and how [government] works. And if you don’t know the workings of government, how can you vote for people in an educated way?”

Sullivan encouraged the students to go to their school committees and superintendents to advocate for civics programs.

During the panel discussion, Robertson explained that courts determine who has committed a crime and what the punishment should be. She said they also peacefully resolve civil disputes.

“None of this is neat or simple in real life,” the Conway resident told the students. “Judges may wear black robes but they’re people — they’re just people.”

Donelan stood up and asked the youths if they knew who wrote the Massachusetts Constitution. When no hands were elevated he explained John Adams, a Founding Father, drafted the document in 1780 and it served as a model for the U.S. Constitution, which was written in 1787 and became effective in 1789. Donelan said the importance of this information reinforces Sullivan’s point about needing civics classes in schools.

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William Mazanec III, presiding judge of Greenfield District Court, spoke before the panel discussion to announce that Emery King, of Colrain, and Hannelore Barlow, of Greenfield, will receive $1,000 scholarships for winning the Franklin County Bar Association Community Fund’s 2023 Thomas W. Merrigan Memorial Scholarship essay contest, given annually to graduating seniors in Franklin County.

King, a senior at Mohawk Trail Regional School, said he read about the essay contest on his school’s scholarship bulletin.

“I think I was just shocked,” King said about finding out he had won. “I kind of knew probably a lot of people weren’t going to do it because there’s a lot of requirements for it. The essay kind of throws people off. I was very happy I won it.”

King, who turns 18 on Saturday, said the essay contest’s theme was civics and community. He said his essay incorporated his love for Socratic seminars. Named for Greek philosopher Socrates, a Socratic seminar consists of students conversing and asking questions of one another without interjections from a teacher.

“It’s really just free and open, and people really listen when there’s not an overarching authoritative figure,” he said. “I’m a lover of Socratic seminars and so that’s kind of where I took my essay.”

King plans to study music theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City in the fall.

Barlow, who attends Amherst Regional High School, could not attended the Law Day event due to having a final exam.

Mazanec told the audience that Merrigan, who died in August 2013, was a longtime Greenfield fixture who attended law school in his 50s and was instrumental in developing the Franklin County Justice Center.

“Without a Tom Merrigan … this courthouse you’re all sitting in wouldn’t exist,” Mazanec said.

The Law Day event started with courthouse tours from 9 to 10 a.m.

Meanwhile, the American Bar Association’s Law Day 2023 will be observed in Hampshire County with an event at the Northampton courthouse starting at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday. The topic will be “Voting Rights Are Human Rights,” featuring Smith College Professor Carrie Baker, University of Massachusetts Amherst Professor Jesse Rhodes and a performance by students from the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School’s mock trial team.

“Civic education is really, really important,” Robertson told the Greenfield Recorder before the panel discussion. “The courts should be part of helping to educate students in that regard. Law Day is an opportunity for that. But we do quite a few activities that we hope will educate students about the role of the courts.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or
413-930-4120.

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