Youth Law Fair Celebrates 20 Years, Honors Judge Melvin Wright

By Jeffery Leon and John Murph

March 21, 2019

The D.C. Bar Communities and D.C. Superior Court hosted the 20th annual Youth Law Fair on March 16 at the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse, drawing more than 100 middle school and high school students from the Washington, D.C., area. The annual event provides youths hands-on experience with how the legal system works through mock trials, courtroom tours, and interactions with members of the bench and bar.

This year’s mock trial theme, “When Robbery and Conspiracy Collide to Steal Your Future,” explored smartphone theft on the Washington Metro transit system, mistaken identity, and fare evasion. Paired with legal professionals during the trials, some of the students played the roles of prosecuting attorneys, defense lawyers, judges, witnesses, and defendants. The mock trials were followed by a conversation with Superior Court Magistrate Judge Noel T. Johnson, who fielded comments about what the students learned from the activity.

Participants play the roles of prosecuting attorneys, defense lawyers, judges, witnesses, and defendants during a mock trial.

Superior Court Magistrate Judge Noel T. Johnson fields questions from students at the 20th annual Youth Law Fair.

The Youth Law Fair opened with remarks from Superior Court Chief Judge Robert E. Morin and D.C. Bar President Esther H. Lim in the Juror’s Lounge. Lim gave a moving recollection of her life as a non-English-speaking Korean immigrant who arrived in the United States when she was 12 years old and became a lawyer through sheer determination. She also talked about Justice Thurgood Marshall and his fight against racial discrimination.

Another highlight of the day was the announcement that the fair will be renamed The Melvin Wright Youth Law Fair next year in honor retired Superior Court Judge Melvin Wright, a founding member of the annual program. Wright, who was in attendance at this year’s fair, was visibly surprised by the renaming decision.

Calling the Youth Law Fair his “baby,” Wright said he was humbled by the honor. “The whole idea behind the Youth Law Fair was me dreaming of uniting my court family with my community family. And that dream came true,” he said. “Now that we are together, I want us to continue being together and to grow as a family. I would like to see the fair continue [to go] forward whether I’m involved or not.”

Retired Superior Court Judge Melvin Wright (center) reacts to the announcement from Superior Court Chief Judge Robert E. Morin and D.C. Bar President Esther H. Lim that the Youth Law Fair will be renamed in his honor.

Wright also spoke warmly about the late Curtis L. Etherly Jr., a former director of federal government affairs and international stakeholder relations at the Coca-Cola Company and a frequent volunteer at the Youth Law Fair, who died unexpectedly last year. Wright said it was Etherly’s idea to add the group discussion with the students after the mock trials to increase participation and to learn more about their perspectives on District laws.

“When we started this program, we wanted to find a way to connect with young people. One of the major things we didn’t want to do was just preach to kids. We wanted to hear from them; we wanted to learn from them. So, we asked, ‘How do we do this?’ We had to engage the students in some way. Curtis suggested that we do it Oprah Winfrey-style.”

In his keynote address, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine spoke passionately about the current statistics showing that blacks are only 13 percent of the U.S. population but make up approximately 40 percent of the country’s prison population. He encouraged the students to be well-informed about the laws of their surroundings, which can vary state by state, as well as their rights as citizens.

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine delivers the keynote address.

Racine also spoke about Charles Hamilton Houston, a pioneering African American lawyer and former dean of Howard University School of Law, who opened doors in education and the legal system so that people of color in the United States could strive for a brighter future.

“You must have a deep belief in your own self-worth; don’t let anybody fool you into thinking that you don’t deserve to be treated with kindness and respect,” Racine said.