Sixth Judicial District Court Judge Michael Montero loves teaching.
A couple of times a year, he gets the opportunity to talk with students about court proceedings and introduce those who work in the system. He then conducts a regular morning’s court docket “law and motion” day, which typically includes arraignments, plea hearings, dealing with probation violations, setting some cases for jury trial and pronouncing sentences in some cases.
Fifth-graders in Humboldt County School District come to court when they study the US Constitution during a “We the People” unit. Last Tuesday, Jan. 16, it was 10th-graders from Lowry High School who were in the courtroom. They had just finished reading “To Kill a Mocking Bird” for their honors English II class.
The book has courtroom scenes and deals with questions of whether everyone is treated equally under the law.
The sophomores’ teacher, Marie-Jeanne Dawson, said the judge has also come to the classroom in some past years. “He goes over with the students what will happen in court and helps them understand the process,” she said.
On Jan. 16, the students saw several drug possession cases and even a drug sales case. They heard defendants try to explain the reasons behind their probation violations and their desire for a second chance. They saw a case regarding domestic battery with strangulation and battery with a deadly weapon.
Two cases involved individuals charged with failure to register as sex offenders, something that people convicted in sex-offense cases have to do for their entire lifetime. One case involved a young man charged with forgery for creating a casino players club card in a fictitious name. There was an arraignment, where a defendant pleaded not guilty to charges of fourth degree arson and child abuse, neglect or endangerment.
Judge Montero asked the students whether any of them were interested in any kind of a career involving the law. At least one young man said he was and that he wanted to be a lawyer.
He asked whether the students or their teacher had any questions for him. Addressing prejudice, one of the major themes of “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” Dawson asked the judge whether he believed the law now had come far enough to be truly color blind.
Judge Montero said he believed the country has come a very long way toward that goal. He then asked each of the lawyers, parole and probation, the deputies and even the media to answer that question from their own perspectives. The discussion was interesting and the quiet students appeared to be engaged.
Two young women defendants in the courtroom on Jan. 16 were former Lowry High School students. Both said they had read “To Kill a Mocking Bird" during their time at the local high school. Both were now facing charges related to their use of drugs; one young woman was charged with possession for sale.
The judge asked one of those young women, just 20 years old, whether she would be willing to tell the students about her situation. She was willing. She said that both her parents were drug addicts. Her introduction to drugs came when she was offered methamphetamine by her mom. “I felt like I had to do drugs to be part of my parents’ life,” she said.
Judge Montero asked the young woman what she wanted her future to be. She said she hoped to become a child advocate and help children who might be in situations as difficult as her own. She said she had a daughter that she hoped someday soon to be able to see more often. She said she wanted the little girl to know her.
“I want to overcome addiction. I’d like to lead a life free of drugs and alcohol,” she said.
Montero asked her if she had anything she specifically wanted to say to the students.
She turned toward them and said it had only been three years since she was in Lowry High School. Speaking of her use of drugs, which became an addiction, she told the students, “If you feel like you’re going that direction, you should get help. I’m 20 years old and have been a meth addict since I was 15.”