“A trial is a public event. What transpires in the courtroom is public property.” Quote from the Supreme Court in a famous passage in a 1947 decision (Craig v. Harney).
A few days ago about Hannah and I went to the Washington County Courthouse to learn about courtroom proceedings because we have been studying our Constitution, government, responsibilities of citizens, etc.. Here’s something I didn’t say about that incident and also something I’ve been looking into since then…
The police officer who did our security check at the door was very nice, but when I asked him about the dockets and which courtroom would be most appropriate for us to visit, another officer stepped over to our area and was pretty much rudely telling us that Hannah could NOT go into the courtroom because she was under 18. I told him that I was certain anyone was allowed in a courtroom because it was open to the public, but he insisted that they did not allow anyone under the age of 18 into a courtroom and basically acted like he we shouldn’t even be in the building. When I asked him when that law had been put into effect, he stood up and moved closer to me in an intimidating fashion, repeating that she wasn’t allowed in the courtroom. I backed down and told him we were going over to the clerks’ area and just went that way to ask some questions about jury duty. While I’m not normally one to back down when I think I’m right, I did because (a) I supposed perhaps the law had changed and I didn’t know about it, (b) Hannah was with me and I didn’t want to seem disrespecting to the officer, and (c) I kind of felt bad for the other officer who had been very nice and was looking at this guy like he was being very disrespectful so I just didn’t want to make a scene.
Anyway, the more I thought about that, I thought it would be good to look up this law and show the kids the statute. Long story short, I have searched thoroughly and cannot find anything indicating that it is against the law to have minors in a courtroom. As a matter of fact, the only thing I can find states that “the presence of infants in the courtroom is discouraged.” Discouraged is a long way from illegal and “infants” is a long way from my kids’ ages of 12 or 14 or 15. There is also a rule that minor children are not allowed in the courtroom in contested domestic cases. While I think this probably applies to the children involved in the cases, even if this applies to all children, this still leaves a TON of cases where children could in fact be in the courtroom.
Perhaps one of the things God wants us to get out of this particular educational lesson about citizenship and government is that we should make sure we KNOW our laws, we’re AWARE of our rights and we realize that it’s up to us to INSIST on fair treatment under the law. Citizens under 18 have as much right to access to the courtroom to learning about and observe our judicial system as people over 18 (obviously with consideration to subjects that might not be appropriate for a younger child)
If your own personal opinion is that “courtrooms aren’t an appropriate place for children anyway,” please remember this. My children are 12, 14 and 15. At those ages, in the state of Tennessee:
– The oldest can have a driver’s permit. Both the 14 and 15-year-old could qualify for a hardship license.
– They can ALL have access (without parental knowledge or consent) to birth control, treatment for sexually transmitted infections and prenatal medical care.
– The oldest two can legally hold jobs.
– They can ALL be charged with a crime.
There is more, but you get the idea. Kids can hold a job, be arrested, drive and have sex, but they can’t sit in a courtroom???
I spoke with clerks in the eastern district and state courts of Tennessee. They said minors are allowed in all courtrooms at that level so then I called our local courts. The lady I spoke with was incredibly nice. She didn’t know the answer to my questions so she found out for me. Here is what she was told: Basically, our local judges in Washington County decided that THEY didn’t want anyone under the age of 18 in the courtrooms. They do occasionally schedule school visits with the local schools, but they have the officers at the door stop anyone just coming in with a minor child.
Here are a couple of the many problems with that. First, they can’t just arbitrarily decided to exclude a particular group of the public from the courtroom (that’s prejudice). Second, pretty much the only group of minors who would be going into a courtroom during daytime hours anyway are homeschool students, which adds another level to the prejudice and it prohibits these students from having access to proceedings that are open to other members of the public.
The clerk said the judges are away at a conference this week (???) and she would talk with them next week about trying to set up a “visit” so we could go in the courtroom. That was nice of her and while I appreciate the gesture, there is a greater issue at hand here. If other members of the public have access to the courtroom, so should my teenagers who are simply trying to learn more about our judicial system and how it works.
I guess they’re going to learn more about this whole process than we originally anticipated…