Courthouse a hands-on learning tool

Richard Settgast talks to a class of international lawyers at the Centre County Courthouse on Wednesday, July 15, 2015.
Richard Settgast talks to a class of international lawyers at the Centre County Courthouse on Wednesday, July 15, 2015.

Courtroom One at the Centre County Courthouse always draws attorneys from around the county and sometimes from the surrounding region for preliminary hearings.

Lawyers from a bit farther away observed the proceedings Wednesday. More than 20 lawyers from 10 countries visited the courthouse as part of a three-week summer program at the Penn State Law School meant to provide a glimpse of how the American justice system works.

“It’s an intensive introduction to the U.S. legal system,” Tiffany Bennett, an instructor at the law school, said.

Most of those visiting through the program will see a system different than what is used at home. Bennett said most come from countries with civil law systems, where judges enforce codified statutes, which is much different from the common law system used in the United States where judges create laws through precedent and are bound by prior rulings.

Wednesday was the third day of the program, and students spent much of the first two days learning about how the American system is structured and the different levels of the state and federal court systems, Bennett said. The trip to the courthouse was the first of a few trips the class will take to provide a firsthand look at how each works.

The class heard from District Judge Carmine Prestia about how preliminary hearings work and the role of magisterial district judges. Assistant District Attorney Jessica Lathrop and Assistant Public Defender Richard Settgast each talked to the class about the roles of prosecution and defense during the hearings. The class also met with President Judge Thomas King Kistler and Judge Pamela A. Ruest.

The international lawyers cover a broad range of experience and roles in their home countries, Bennett said. Kistler, Ruest and Prestia even had a peer among the visitors. One of the guests is a sitting judge in Brazil.

The class will visit the federal district court in Williamsport next week and federal circuit court in Washington D.C. during the third week. Between trips, they’ll take classes on different aspects of law in the United States including business, administrative and immigration law, Bennett said.

Some of the attorneys will return home immediately after the three-week program; others will remain at Penn State to work toward a master’s degree program in law.