November 16, 2023

Utah Court of Appeals' Visit to USU was Informational and Inspirational

By Andrea DeHaan, CHaSS Communications Editor

Utah Court of Appeals Judges Mortensen and Luthy hear property cases at USU
Utah Court of Appeals Judges Mortensen and Luthy hear property cases at USU on Sept. 20, 2023. (Photo credit: Nathan Stewart)

Earlier this semester, the Utah State University Political Science Department hosted Utah Court of Appeals proceedings on the Logan campus. Presiding Judge Michele M. Christiansen Forster, Judge David N. Mortensen, and Judge John D. Luthy, an alumnus of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, heard two property dispute cases. Students, faculty, and staff gathered to watch the live court proceedings alongside attendees from Cache Valley area high schools.

“My students had never seen anything like this before, and yet the work of the Utah Court of Appeals connects deeply to concepts we discuss and debate in class,” said Andrea Thompson, AP government teacher at Sky View and Green Canyon. “It was so fascinating to learn more about how the state judiciary works behind the scenes, and I know my students felt respected when they had the opportunity to ask their own questions … [during] the Q&A segment.”

The Utah Court of Appeals heard lawyers give oral arguments in two cases — one was a family trust dispute involving thousands of acres of land; the other concerned a property boundary between landowners. The audience witnessed each attorney present arguments and counterarguments, and then listened as the three-judge panel asked questions about the evidence presented at trial.

“The real issue the court is looking at is whether the testimony … allowed at trial was adequate and whether proper disclosure procedures were followed,” said Political Science Department Head Damon Cann.

There was a short break after the proceedings, followed by a Q&A between the court and audience members. While the judges could not comment on the cases they had just heard, they were generous with their time and took questions from USU students, high school students, and community members in attendance.

Judge Luthy said that outreach events like these were important for helping citizens understand the role of courts and building trust in public institutions.

“As members of the public, like yourselves, have opportunities to see the courts at work,” he said, “the favorable opinion of the work that the courts do increases.” By letting people see that “the system works as it should,” said Luthy, Utahns come to understand that “the way we go about adjudicating controversies in our state is good and can be trusted.”

While Luthy did not have the chance to see actual proceedings as an undergraduate, he did participate in a supreme court simulation conducted in one of his POLS courses and felt it had prepared him well for the future, calling the moot court proceedings “one of the primal things” that inspired him to go to law school.

UCOA Judges Mortensen, Luthy, and Christiansen Forster participate in a Q&A at USU

Professor Anthony Peacock’s law and policy class, POLS 5130, used the Court of Appeals visit to discuss legal arguments and understand how judges and attorneys interpret existing case law. 

“It appeared at times that the judges might be leaning one way, only to seemingly switch sides when the opposing counsel appeared before them to argue the other side of the case,” Peacock said. “I think [the event] revealed to the students and everyone else unfamiliar with how litigation works that it is indeed an adversarial process. It was all very civil, but there were clearly two distinct, opposing sides to each case with very different interpretations of the law and related facts in dispute.”

Several students and faculty were invited to meet Christiansen Forster, Mortensen, and Luthy during a luncheon afterward. Will Wright, a junior studying political science, was among them.

“It was really cool to get some … guidance from judges who have obviously been very successful in their careers,” he said. “Events like this are an awesome way for USU students to get an up-close look at the judicial process.”

Wright called it a great opportunity, especially for students interested in legal careers, and Professor Peacock agreed.

“Everyone who spoke up in class found the event very revealing and educational. A number of students … plan on going to law school,” Peacock said, “and I think watching the two civil litigation cases was a real eye-opener for them.”

Learn more about how this event came together: https://chass.usu.edu/liberalis/events/archive/fall-2023/ucoa-pols-pr

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