Leavitt Area High School students listen Wednesday to Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill make introductions before hearing oral arguments in appeals cases held at the Turner school. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

It’s not often that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is a hot topic, but there was a noticeable buzz Wednesday in the halls at Leavitt Area High School as students and staff shared their predictions for the outcome of the appeals cases argued in the auditorium.

In the third case of the day, a lawyer for Mark Penley argued that errors and misconduct during his trial, which ultimately led to two murder convictions, warranted a redo.

But some students and staff say they weren’t convinced.

“I don’t think that the guy had any wiggle room,” said government and history teacher Jake Foster, listing off the evidence against Penley. “I would be surprised if he gets a new trial.”

This week, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court traveled to Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris and Leavitt Area High School in Turner to hear three appeals cases each in front of students and school staff.

The events are part of a larger program by the state to expose students to the judiciary branch of government. Since 2005, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has traveled to three high schools each year at the invitation of local legislatures, except in 2020-21.


At Leavitt, students were divided into three groups that heard appeals regarding a law enforcement officer whose certificate was revoked, an operating under the influence conviction and a double murder conviction. At Oxford Hills, the appeals related to cases on domestic violence assault, unpaid wages following a phishing incident and the sexual assault of an 18-year-old student.

For many students and staff, it was their first time seeing a live court proceeding.

Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill introduces herself Wednesday morning to students and faculty assembled in the Leavitt Area High School auditorium in Turner. The justices were hearing oral arguments for three appeals cases. Beside her are Justice Andrew Mead, middle, and Justice Rick Lawrence. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Leavitt senior Lily Anctil said the case was different from what she’s seen on TV or in true crime shows.

“I thought there was gonna be more back and forth conversation, like, less questioning from the justices,” she said.

Isaiah Davis, a history teacher, said he was surprised by how almost casual the conversation became as justices fired different questions at the lawyers.

“Some of (the justices) are sort of agreeing with him (the lawyer), and some of them are totally shutting him down, and they keep interrupting him,” Davis said. “That really puts you on the spot for that 15 minutes.”


“I would be so angry if people kept, like, just tearing on me for asking questions and stating my (ideas),” said Leavitt senior Sawyer Hathaway.

But the experience has shown him just how complex the law is.

“You can see why the arguments can be made because there’s technicalities that happen, and there’s things that can be admissible and not admissible,” Hathaway said. “So it kind of goes to show how detailed the law is. How exceptions can be made.”

Over the past week, Leavitt students studied their assigned case in class, using one-page “brief briefs” compiled by the high school social studies teachers.

The court briefs, which are hundreds of pages long, are not brief, Davis and Foster commented. One side of the teacher-made briefs included the facts of the case, while the other side contained the legal principles in question.

“It’s cool for everybody,” Davis said. “But in that audience today, like, there’s a couple of kids who are going to become lawyers.”


Even as other students may have sat disinterested, one or two students might decide to pursue law in part due to this experience, he explained.

Republican Sen. Jeffrey Timberlake of Turner, who invited the court to visit Leavitt, said he believes it’s important for students to see for themselves what true court proceedings are like.

“They hear about politics on TV everyday now, all day long, every day,” Timberlake said. “And you know, you talk about the Legislature and the governor, but you don’t very often hear about the court.”

He likened the three branches of government to a three-legged stool: “It takes that third leg to balance the other two legs, and without it, that stool tips over.”

Students at both Oxford and Leavitt high schools will have to wait several months before learning the outcome of the appeals.

“I feel like when the decisions come out, it’s going to be exciting,” Anctil said.

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