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Supreme Court justice role-plays his way into a Constitution lesson

His Dodge Viper model car generated almost as many inquires as questions about the Constitution.

The Washington Supreme Court’s Justice Tom Chambers pulled up in front of Central Kitsap High School in his life-size grey Viper, U.S. flag painted all over the car, last Wednesday.

It was Chambers’ third visit to CKHS, as they keep inviting him, he said.

He has worked this stop into his schedule of speaking at high schools and in front of community groups in the state about law and the judiciary.

“I want to engage the students,” he said after his second session at CKHS. “The whole thing is to teach them about federalism and how our government works.”

That goal fits right in with Sarah Fisher’s Advanced Placement government class’s curriculum.

Fisher, a Stanford Law School graduate, says she has a love of the Constitution and introduces her students to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, she also teaches federalism, which the students have touched on early in the school year, before Chambers’ visit, to help them come up with better, more pointed questions.

“I also teach great kids that have great intellectual curiosity,” said Fisher after her students, among the first group listening to Chambers, showered the justice with questions and even hit on a topic which he said he cannot talk about because there is a case about same-sex marriage laws in the state’s Supreme Court right now.

“You will be able to read precisely what I think in due course,” he said.

Students from the AP government class sat alongside U.S. history and leadership classmates in the school’s library for two separate back-to-back presentations.

Chambers said after the second talk, he appreciated how generous the teachers and students are with their time.

“Let’s face it, I’m not really fitted into their curriculum,” he said.

Yet, he still found ways to make the hour-long presentations engaging.

He shared his views on terrorism, as a means of speaking about the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s right here at home,” he said. “and we have to treat terrorism seriously.”

At the same time, he juxtaposed it to the protection of people’s liberties. One example he dwelled on was the fate of Guantanamo detainees which is entirely under the military’s discretion.

“You’ve taken the checks and balances out of that system and that concerns me,” Chambers said.

The fact that probable cause has been practically eliminated when it comes to placing surveillance equipment in citizens’ homes is also “worrisome to me” he added, speaking from his own personal views.

The students listened quietly, the occasional note-taker scribbling into his or her notebook.

But then there was a stir, some chuckles and a few whispers. Chambers slipped into a white wig and an old-fashioned purple coat with lace-decorated sleeves. He transformed into James Madison, only the head of the cartoon Dalmatian puppy on Chambers’ neck tie showing above the golden collar of the old-fashioned coat.

Chambers acknowledged he couldn’t find a black outfit to fit his historical character into, but he did present Madison’s take on terrorism.

The United States itself has been engaging in terrorist acts for hundreds of years, “Madison” argued in front of the CKHS students. And the suspension of liberties has happened before as well — President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the civil war, pointed out Chambers, as Madison.

“Our history (repeats itself) with these kinds of perceived threats,” Chambers argued, still in character. When such a threat, like modern-day terrorism, is removed, then the laws are restored back to normal, he added.

The presentation ended with a question and answer time, for which Chambers slipped back into his own personality and he touched upon the differences and relationships between federal and state supreme court cases.

Senior Corinne LeTourneau was one of the vigorous note-takers who said she appreciated hearing first hand about state laws and the relationship between state and federal government.

“I didn’t realize it was so difficult to get them (the state Supreme Court) to hear a case” she said.

Learning things that connect what LeTourneau learned in her AP government class with knowledge beyond the syllabus items, is the kind of benefit students reap from the justice’s annual visit.

What Chambers gets out of the experience, “besides great gifts, lunch and company,” he said smiling and peering into a paper bag full of orange and black CKHS goodies, is a fulfillment of responsibility.

Chambers said he believes judges need to be among people, to find out what the issues are that concern them.

“Part of our obligation is to be open,” he added. “And to make sure people understand how the court works.”

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