It isn’t every day that the Apfelbaum Courtroom at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law sees a real judge on the bench. On Tuesday, it saw three as the Pennsylvania Superior Court heard arguments at the Lewis Katz Building for the first time.
Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen, a Penn State education graduate, Judge Christine Donohue and Judge Victor Stabile will hear a docket of 45 cases over two days. The traveling show is nothing new for the court, which generally sits in Harrisburg, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.
“We are your tax dollars at work,” said Donohue, who said the road trip lets people in more remote areas of the commonwealth see how the court functions. “When we go to a small county, we get a lot more people to come to a session. People come out just to see what we do.”
The judges say their court, one of the busiest in the country, issues 5,000 opinions a year. For 95 percent of appealed cases in the state, the Superior Court is their “court of last resort,” according to Donohue. Very few are taken higher to the state Supreme Court, which has the freedom to select its cases.
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The court, consisting of more than a dozen judges overall, hears appeals on all manner of Pennsylvania cases. On Tuesday, cases included adoption disputes, an employee injured in a fall, a discussion about reasonable suspicion in a murder, and the high-profile case of former revenue secretary Stephen Stetler, who appealed his 2012 guilty verdict on charges of theft, conspiracy and conflict of interest.
“When you sit here, it’s a trust,” said Stabile. “Every time you decide a case, you are not only affecting the people in front of you, but everyone in Pennsylvania.”
It is also a constantly evolving job. Students from Mount Nittany Middle School, Bald Eagle Area High School and Penn State sat in on the morning session before getting a chance to quiz the judges on legal processes and their own motivations to become judges.
Donohue, who asked questions to attorneys in each case, debating and challenging them on points of law, clearly relished the semantics and rhetoric of the work.
“Not a week goes by that I don’t learn at least two new things,” she told students.
Allen was quieter, listening to arguments and taking in everything being said, only occasionally interjecting with a question. The former teacher became a lawyer after just three years in the classroom, then after observing in her work as a trial lawyer, decided to change careers again.
“I became frustrated and thought, ‘I can do that job better than the judge,’ ” she said.