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April 05, 2021 Judicial Division

Three Judges, Three States and One Lane Tech College Prep High School

By Hon. Elizabeth R. Finn (Ret.), Phoenix, AZ

Spurred into action by the ever-ambitious Judge Ann Breen-Greco, three Judicial Division members participated in the National Judicial Outreach Week with Lane Technical School in Chicago. Judge Elizabeth R. Finn (Ret.) of Arizona and Colonel Linda Strite Murnane (Ret.), now living in Ohio, partnered with Judge Breen-Greco of Illinois on her initiative. Each judge delivered a presentation on the Rule of Law during a different Law Class organized by one amazing teacher, Susan Sebestyen. 

Judge Breen-Greco led the efforts to coordinate all the required by the Chicago Public Schools to allow visitors into the classrooms.  The process was quite extensive including needing to provide photo identification before we could be approved to teach as visiting faculty.

Despite meticulous planning and careful attention to detail, the one thing none of us knew until the day of the presentation was you had to have a specific email address to be able to participate using video.  Undaunted, however, just as with all the adaptations we have come to know and appreciate during the last year, we were able to deliver the presentations as promised, using telephones.  That’s not to say it was without special additional challenges, including multiple pins and phones that went dead mid-way through the presentation, but we are above all problem-solvers, and we succeeded in conducting the promised sessions for all three classes.

Col. Murnane had the early-bird session which was the “Honors Class.”  She reports she began using the curriculum on Rule of Law provided in the Public Education website of the ABA.  Ms. Sebestyen wisely interjected this was the “Honors” class and they pretty much knew what she was speaking about already but might like to know more about how one could become a judge and what kinds of cases a judge might hear.  Many of us have heard Colonel Murnane’s story about her path to the bench, and so it seems the students were fascinated by the work of a military judge. In this regard, they wanted to know what kinds of cases were tried before a military judge and what educational background judges were required to have.

Of course, we all know that Colonel Murnane shared her story about trying cases related to Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, and she told the students she had tried cases in Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  She shared she had been on every continent except one and was thrilled during her career to meet in person Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, as well Pope Francis when she spoke at the Vatican in 2019.  Colonel Murnane later sent photos of those events to the teacher for her to share with her class.  Colonel Murnane said, “It was an absolute pleasure to work with these students.”

Judge Breen-Greco led her discussion by letting the students know she was aware they were familiar with the three branches of government and the Rule of Law. She started with Women’s History Month and how it came into law through Congress and then proceeded talking about International Women’s Day. Using the chat functions, students related to Rule of Law and applied it to events occurring today. Their wonderful teacher had already started having them watch the Minneapolis trial of Officer Chauvin addressing the criminal charges related to the death of George Floyd. Judge Breen-Greco emphasized there were some principles occurring with the trial with respect to everyone being held accountable, but everyone has due process rights. There were numerous comments about the students feeling the Black Lives Matter protestors and the insurrectionists being treated differently. She emphasized investigations were still occurring. This teacher was one Judge Breen-Greco had met in person a couple of years ago and she inquired if the Judge’s workout routine still included walking, running, and lifting weights! Judge Breen-Greco responded enthusiastically “yes!” The students in the chat function said they were now motivated to go out for a run!

I had the shortest amount of time because the teacher kept receiving different phone numbers and pins than the students. But we did finally get started after a bit of delay. Ms. Sebestyen related to me everything the students had studied recently. It was amazing how well-versed they were in current affairs.

I opened the session talking about being a city court judge addressing criminal matters such as DUI’s, domestic violence matters, civil traffic and operating a Mental Health Court with so many homeless people. They were fascinated by the different kinds of activities as I emphasized courts had stepped up creating specialty courts to help defendants succeed in becoming law abiding citizens. I talked about individually tailored contracts for defendants including using art for expression, ordering them into in-patient treatment programs and assisting in helping them find housing.

I explained my passion for domestic violence issues was also related to working to change laws, forms etc. My passion was found because I was able to accomplish more off the bench than on the bench.

The students wanted to know how I became a judge. They were surprised when I them it was never my desire to become a judge. My husband wanted to move to California and I made him a deal. I would apply for a judgeship; if I did not receive it, we would move. Obviously, I was lucky and secured the position. What was so I important to me was being a judge helped me find my passions.

I stressed to the students the beauty of earning a law degree by discussing my family. My father, a long-time lawyer, was later joined by my mother and me in the firm. As a lawyer, my father practiced every kind of law.  I shared with the students that I did not like malpractice and business law cases so those went to him. My mother loved to write and research which was great for me as a partner because I only wanted to be in court all the time. My sister, like my mother, attended law school later in life and though graduating number one in her class, as did my mother – not me- she started with a commercial contract firm and decided it was not for her. She became the first general counsel for the Arizona Education Department doing direct member services and never appearing in a courtroom. My son is a county public defender, initially in a courtroom every day was now in appeals, writing all the time. The beauty of obtaining a law degree is it opens so many doors.

The funniest part of my presentation was when my dog entered the room I use as office and I made a comment. They all replied in the chat function they wanted a picture of Carl which I sent to Ms. Sebestyen. In the email with Carl’s picture I included safe statements they can make to someone who they feel is a victim of domestic violence. Carl’s picture is below!

We received a very nice email from Ms. Sebestyen thanking us for all our efforts for National Judicial Outreach. Below is a picture sent from one of the classes who were appearing on her screen. Each judge had a different experience, but we were all impressed at the knowledge level and interest of the students at Lane Tech College Prep High School. This is another example of what effect a great teacher like Ms. Sebestyen can have on our youth. 

Photo of Carl the dog (left) and Lane Tech College Prep High School students (R).

Photo of Carl the dog (left) and Lane Tech College Prep High School students (R).