DECATUR — Michelle Sanders said she did things “backwards.”
After graduating law school and passing the bar, most young attorneys look for a job as a law clerk to gain the most varied experience. Sanders went to work as a public defender for Macon County.
Six years later, she started a law clerk position, working for Judge Lisa Holder White, who serves on the 4th District Appellate Court.
“I found out I really love research and writing,” Sanders said. “And being a clerk is prestigious. It’s one pathway to becoming a judge, or a springboard to private practice, because you have that background of writing motions.”
Sanders and fellow law clerk Jill Ausdenmoore, with Bobbi Gentry, chairwoman of the Millikin University Department of Political Science, held a panel discussion for Constitution Day at Millikin on Tuesday.
The U.S. Constitution was adopted Sept. 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and ratified by 11 states. It went into effect March 4, 1789. It is the oldest written national constitution still in force in the world.
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The event was open to the public, Gentry said, as the university’s way of marking the day.
Ausdenmoore and Sanders took turns discussing various cases that were appealed on constitutional grounds and the various provisions in the constitution.
Constitutional rights are not unlimited, Ausdenmoore said, citing the example of not yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater or posting obscene images on a billboard.
“Our job is to define what those limits are,” she said.
One case involved a 16-year-old girl and a 20-year-old man who murdered the girl’s uncle. The girl was tried as an adult under Illinois law that provides for that when the charge is first-degree murder, and she received a 30-year-sentence. She appealed on the grounds that it violated her Eighth Amendment rights to be free of “cruel and unusual” punishment. The appellate court ruled that a 30-year sentence did not qualify as cruel and unusual.
The appellate court presumes that previous proceedings and laws are constitutional unless there is clear indication that they are not, Sanders said.
“The majority of appeals stop with (the appellate court),” she said. In some cases, they go on to the Illinois Supreme Court, and in a very few, the U.S. Supreme Court. White listens to her clerk’s opinions on cases after they’ve done the research, but ultimately the decision she makes is hers alone.
Students from Phoenix Academy attended the panel discussion.
“First thing we did today was walk around campus and got a feel for Millikin, so they could know that college is a viable option,” social studies teacher Whitney Vanderspool-Snell said. “They’re high school students, so the next step is to find a career and go to college.”