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Arizona Supreme Court hears oral arguments at law college

March 26, 2009

The Arizona Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two cases -- Ryan John Chronis v. Hon. Roland Steinle and State of Arizona, ex rel. Andrew Thomas, and State of Arizona v. Sean W. Botkin -- at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law on Tuesday, March 24.

The Court hears cases at the College of Law once or twice each year, allowing students to watch proceedings and ask the justices questions afterward. Although the justices cannot comment on the pending cases, they discuss other issues with the students.

Three of the justices are College of Law alumni – Chief Justice Ruth V. McGregor (Class of 1974), Vice Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch (Class of 1979) and Justice Michael D. Ryan (Class of 1977). Justices Andrew D. Hurwitz and W. Scott Bales are adjunct faculty at the College of Law.

In the first case, Chronis has been indicted on a charge of first-degree murder and the state is seeking the death penalty if he is convicted. Chronis has asked for a probable cause hearing on the alleged aggravating circumstance that, "The defendant committed the offense in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner." The trial court denied the motion, and Chronis filed for a special action.

In the second case, the issue concerned the probation status of Botkin, who in October 2000, when he was 14, held his eighth grade class of 32 children hostage at gunpoint. He pled guilty to kidnapping and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and was placed on intensive probation. Three years later, while still on probation, he gave a classmate some of his sleeping pills, and was charged with prescription drug violations. At issue is whether a judge can change Botkin's probation status after the state has asked for it to be revoked.

One student asked if the Court chose cases specifically for the law school hearings.

McGregor said that they tried to choose cases that involved issues that law students would find interesting rather than obscure points of law, but that the court has less leeway than it used to in scheduling.

"We may grant review one month, then hear the case the next," she said.

Asked how the justices prepare for cases, Bales explained that preparation included reading the previous briefs and opinions before granting review, reading supplemental briefs and memorandum written by their law clerks.

"Almost never have we discussed the cases among ourselves," Bales said, adding that questioning during oral arguments often is a way to test out their own views and begin to learn what the other justices are thinking.

Hurwitz said that his final opinion is sometimes, but not often, changed through the oral arguments, but that it almost always changes the way the opinion is written.

Chuck Dallyn, a professor at the College of Law, asked about attorneys using phrasing like, "We think ..." or "I believe ..."

"Attorneys can believe all kinds of things," Ryan quipped, evoking laughter in the audience. "I'm more interested in how they interpret the law."

McGregor urged students to act professionally and to recognize their limitations and abilities, reaching out for help and mentorship when needed.

"When you leave law school, you're just at the starting point," she said. "You're just baby lawyers with a whole lot to learn."

Berch said students also should polish their writing skills.

"It helps to write quite well," said Berch, who explained that, although she takes notes during oral arguments, she relies heavily on the written briefs when writing an opinion.

Judy Nichols,
(480) 727-7895
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law