The Supreme Court Summer Institute for Teachers offers such rare opportunities that Maine West High School Social Science teacher Kelly Pecak said, "It felt like I was at the Super Bowl for law teachers."
In a sense, she was. Pecak, who in August will begin her 15th year of teaching at West, studied cases in depth, heard from Court clerks and administrators, talked with attorneys who have argued before the court and finally visited the court itself to hear a high-profile decision.
Pecak was among 60 teachers nationwide to earn, via competitive application process, a spot at the institute. The prestigious program is organized yearly by the Constitutional Rights Foundation and Street Law Inc., which provides real-life lessons and programs to educate people about law, democracy and human rights.
"It was a great year to be at this institute because there were so many interesting cases," Pecak said. "The two most interesting to me and probably to most of the country were Arizona v. United States (the Arizona immigration law case) and the Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida (the health care case). We studied them both in-depth and learned how we could teach those to our students."
The Arizona case held direct interest for Pecak because many of her students are from immigrant families who had been watching the case closely.
On the day Kelly's group observed the court in action, Justice Elena Kagan announced the majority decision for Miller v. Alabama, which was a finding that mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles under 18 convicted of homicide are unconstitutional. Justice Sam Alito announced the dissenting opinion.
Next, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced the Arizona decision, which declared three parts of the Arizona law unconstitutional and left one part standing. Justice Antonin Scalia delivered a dissent.
"Having two oral dissents in one day is also pretty unusual and made it even more exciting," Pecak said. Her group later enjoyed a reception at the court with Kagan, who spoke about the importance of teachers.
"We also got to meet the lovely Mrs. Thurgood Marshall who is a strong supporter of the program," Pecak said.
Pecak will infuse what she learned in her classes this fall by spending more time on constitutional law and conducting a Moot Court on a Supreme Court case in her law classes.
"I learned some very engaging and interactive strategies to teach these cases and about how the Supreme Court works. I am also excited to share my experiences at the court," Pecak said. "My students may not always get as excited about this as I do, but hopefully my enthusiasm and this experience will make it more interesting to them."
"Quality professional development programs such as the Supreme Court Institute are both rewarding for the teachers and extremely beneficial for our students," said Maine West Social Science department chairman Susan Gahagan Mueller. "I was thrilled that Ms. Pecak was selected to participate. Her students will gain uncommon insight to the workings of our legal system."