Iola High School senior Allie Fager has watched a lot of “Judge Judy” with her grandmother.
But that television courtroom drama never prepared her for a real-life courtroom, like the one at the 31st Judicial District in Allen County.
“This is nothing like that,” she said.
Fager serves as an intern under Chief District Judge Dan Creitz. For two hours every weekday morning, she meets with the judge or his staff to learn more about the realities of the U.S. justice system. She plans to become a lawyer, and the internship has provided valuable insight to prepare her for that career.
“Something that really shocked me was finding out the sentences are not made up,” she said, referring to guidelines judges use to determine an appropriate sentence based on the type of crime and the defendant’s criminal history.
“I thought the judge just guessed, but it turns out there’s an actual grid they use. It makes more sense that way, but I didn’t know.”
That’s just one of her misconceptions about what happens in a courtroom.
“A lot happens behind the scenes. There are so many people involved in the process. It’s a very collaborative effort,” she said.
There’s also a lot of paperwork involved.
“There’s a lot of filing of documents. The amount of court document pages I’ve read is insane,” she said. “It’s awesome, though. I love it.”
That’s a good thing to find out now, Allie realized. She might not have discovered her appreciation for reading legal documents until she was well into law school. What if she had gotten that far and found out she didn’t want to read that much legalese?
“It probably wouldn’t have gone over very well with my parents if I went to law school and spent all that money and then decided I didn’t like it.”
ALLIE’S day at court typically starts with a meeting with Judge Creitz. He offers her a snack; Allie has learned the judge has an affinity for cheese.
“We just sit and eat cheese together and talk about what he wants me to do that day,” she said.
Perhaps a new document has been filed in a case and he wants her to review it. If Judge Creitz is scheduled to hear criminal cases in the courtroom, she’ll sit in on them.
Allie has signed confidentiality agreements that prevent her from talking about cases outside of the internship.
“I’ve seen quite a lot of things: criminal cases, misdemeanors, civil cases, small claims, grand judgments. I drove to Chanute and saw the courthouse there. A high school senior from Labette County came to visit and observe here, and it was kind of neat to be able to explain to her what was going on,” Allie said.
All of the district court staff, and the staff for the various attorneys she encounters, have welcomed and accommodated her. She especially appreciates the time Judge Creitz takes to help her understand the court system and to grow as a person.
“He’s just so wonderful. He’s always finding things for me to look at or keep me engaged in the conversation, or creating opportunities for me to see different parts of the court system,” she said. “Everyone here is very smart, very compassionate, but they also have to be very disciplined and diligent. It’s a service to the community.
“I’ve already adjusted to the atmosphere and I’ve learned all the lingo in just a few months. At first I was very confused and had so many questions, but now I can hang in there and actually have discussions.”
It’s the kind of education that most prospective lawyers probably don’t get until college or law school, she said.
“There’s not a lot I can actually do at my internship besides reading and discussion and observation because I just don’t have the training,” she said. “But I’ve learned so much. I’m excited to go to school every day.”
Her biggest takeaway: “The wheels of justice move very, very slowly.”
Most cases are continued again and again, until the parties reach some sort of agreement. Most civil cases end in a settlement, and most criminal cases end in some sort of plea bargain before they ever reach a jury trial.
In fact, Allie has yet to see a jury trial. There’s one scheduled for this spring, but there’s no guarantee it will actually make it that far.
“That’s a very long and involved process as well,” she said.
Her internship requires her to dress in a professional manner, in slacks or a skirt with a nice blouse or sweater, which is a far cry from what she would otherwise wear to school.
She recalled a recent conversation with her younger brother, who said, in awe, “Allie, you’re so grown up. You drive and you go to work.”
“I go to an internship,” she responded.
“But you look nice,” he said.
That exchange helped Allie appreciate the internship opportunity even more.
“It’s a big deal to be able to say as a high school senior that I was an intern at the 31st Judicial District Court,” she said. “I really want to encourage these types of internships. It allows students to see first-hand what’s available and where you might want to specialize in your career field.”