Richfield High School students had a litany of questions for Minnesota Supreme Court justices Tuesday morning: How do they respond to public criticism of their work? How do they decide cases they might personally disagree with?
But freshman Niya Briggs had a big career question, plus a dash of fashion critique, for Associate Justice Natalie Hudson.
"My question is for the lady in pink — gorgeous, by the way — I'm just wondering how you guys get into this sort of thing?" Briggs asked as the auditorium broke out in laughter.
The scene played out as part of the Supreme Court's annual roadshow. The court has listened to oral arguments in high schools across the state for decades; this time, justices took up a school segregation case — Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota — that could lead to the largest reorganization of Minnesota schools in decades.
The justices said they typically ask court staff to consult with school district officials to find cases that might interest students. The litigation isn't always related to education, but in this case it was a happy coincidence, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea said.
Hundreds of students watched in the auditorium as lawyers for both sides stated their case and justices questioned them about their positions. Associate Justice Gordon Moore said it was important for the teens to see the rigorous questioning of both sides.
But student Brody Titzer was curious: How do justices decide cases when their personal beliefs conflict with the letter of the law?
Hudson said she's written court opinions with which she didn't personally agree. But she signed on to them because the court interprets the law — its members don't act on their individual beliefs.
"I'm not Queen Natalie," she said. "You don't always get to do what you want to do."
School segregation debate
The case before the court Tuesday began in 2015 when Alejandro Cruz-Guzman and a group of other parents sued the state, the Legislature, and the state Department of Education alleging that the three entities — plus the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts and three charter schools — ran afoul of the the state Constitution by giving children of color in the Twin Cities a substandard education.
At the root of those dismal academic offerings, the families said, is the racial segregation in schools within two of the state's largest districts. Their lawyers argue that racially homogenous schools are the key component in the chasm between reading and math proficiency among students of color and their white peers.
But the state's lawyers — led by Solicitor General Liz Kramer — argued Tuesday that individual districts and schools, not state agencies or the Legislature, should be held accountable for the quality of the education.
Charter schools intervening in the case also worry their campuses would have to shut down if the plaintiffs win the case. Some of those schools cater to and enroll high percentages of students of color. Parents and lawyers for the predominantly Black Friendship Academy of the Arts in Minneapolis say their school is an example of families banding together to fight lackluster educational offerings.
The full case has yet to go to trial. And on Tuesday, the state's highest court was tasked with considering a narrow slice of it.
The state Court of Appeals ruled in September that the plaintiffs must prove racial segregation in the Twin Cities was intentional for the practice to be considered a violation of the state Constitution.
Dan Shulman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, appealed that decision.
The Supreme Court's opinion will help set the parameters for further litigation of the full case in Hennepin County District Court.
Gildea said justices would need four to five months before issuing an opinion.
'Write and think critically'
Before the Richfield students headed back to class, where some would visit with individual justices for short civics lessons, several asked for advice on law careers and how to learn more about the legal system.
Associate Justice G. Barry Anderson urged them to read opinions thoroughly before offering their own. Gildea said cases in which she fought fraud and corruption were her favorites to take on as a lawyer.
And Hudson told students interested in entering the law profession to finish high school and in college to take classes that "make you write and think critically."
"If you do that, you're well on your way," Hudson said.