September/October 2014

225th Anniversary of the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789

Months ago the approaching anniversary of the Federal Judiciary Act enticed a group from the U.S. Marshal Service and the Federal Courts to consider how it might be acknowledged. Ideas ranged from a reenactment of the Dakota Territory days and Judge Isaac C. Parker, an Old West legend often referred to as the “Hanging Judge,” to Black Powder events.

Knowing that we wanted an outreach program that included the schools, Ms. Jessica Smith, a local 8th grade educator joined our group. She suggested that the program should accentuate the 4 C’s: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Collaboration. Within minutes the idea of a simulated fugitive hunt began to evolve. Six months later, on September 14th, we welcomed 120 students to the Quentin N. Burdick U.S. Courthouse—60 in the morning and 60 in the afternoon.

Our day began early when 13 drama students from a local high school, drafted as our fugitives and extras for the day, arrived and learned their roles. A chosen five already had their pictures and specifics on wanted posters. These were the “Doe Brothers” who had recently escaped from jail while being held on drug charges.

Our fugitives were loose! At 9:00 sharp the eighth graders arrived. After a brief welcome and summary of the historic event, the stu­dents were sworn in as “marshals,” divided into 5 groups, and given their fugitive’s rap sheet.

Deputy Cole Johnson explained that these fugitives needed to be tracked, pursued, and brought to justice. Each group was assigned a deputy and together they discovered that their hunt began in a cell block. Clues were gath­ered, and the students took notes and deduced where the clues led them. Along the way, they interviewed wit­nesses, sought out the next destination, and finally apprehended their fugitive. Once apprehended, the booking process in the Marshal Service began—fingerprints, restraints, and orange jumpsuits greeted the escapee. Each group had two “student deputies” who then accompanied their fugitive to the courtroom.

Everyone gathered in Judge Ralph Erickson’s courtroom. The Judge, United States Attorney, Federal Public Defender, and Probation Officer introduced themselves to the students and explained their role in the judicial system. The five prisoners were then convicted of escaping from jail and advised of the penalty and Sentencing Guidelines. Each convicted fugitive was allowed time to make a statement. Several of the drama students used this time in the limelight and made unusual statements! (One told me later that he was so scared he nearly cried.) All five were sentenced, the group was dis¬missed, and the event ended with cookies.

What did the students think of the experience? “I learned how important it is to be thorough in asking ques¬tions.” “You just don’t think about what US Marshals do. You just know they get the bad guys, but it’s kinda fun to see all that goes into it. ” “This is not like what is on TV.” Judge Erickson summed it up from the bench after the sentences were handed out. “You have to change the way that you think. One of the problems with criminals is they hang around with criminals, and they think like criminals.”

Following the fugitive hunt, the U.S. Courts held a formal court session dedicated to the Constitutional Congress meeting 225 years ago and passage of the act which established the U.S. Federal Judiciary: the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789. A short video is available at this link.