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June 14, 2017

Inside the Courtroom: Notes from Bradley

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It’s a beautiful courtroom.

My steps took me past the marshal and down the center aisle, surrounded on either side by rows of wooden benches that filled the gallery. Up ahead was the bar, and just beyond the lectern and tables for counsel. The prosecutor, due to arrive at any moment, would sit at the table to my left. I moved to the one on right.

In just a few minutes, the three judges who would hear the arguments—and ultimately decide our appeal—would enter and take their place on the dais. They would be seated in the middle, flanked on their left by the swallowtail Ohio Burgee, and on their right by the Stars and Stripes. The seal of the court was behind them, a beautiful disk of gold, mahogany, and obsidian.

A clerk entered from a side door, carrying three large binders. My local counsel had informed me beforehand that this court prided itself in being prepared for arguments. As each binder dropped into place with a quiet thud, I knew I’d been rightly informed.

My notes lay before me. I’d spent the previous three weeks poring over them, making a small tweak here, jotting a short note there. I was hoping that when the argument began, muscle memory would take over and I wouldn’t need them. In a moment, we’d all know…

We rose as the judges filed in, taking their seats on the dais. As the presiding judge called case number 2016-11-094, State of Ohio v. Valerie Bradley, I remember thinking that the acoustics were stunning. Each word seemed to hang in the air for a moment, then ping off the walls in marvelous tones. I rose and took my place behind the lectern, as I’d practiced many times before. Only this time, it wasn’t practice. I took a deep breath and began.

Judge Powell, Judge Ringland, Judge Piper, and may it please the court. My name is Peter Kamakawiwoole, and along with my co-counsel, Joseph Cesta, I represent Mrs. Valerie Bradley.

My task at the outset was simple. Our two previous judges had bought the state’s narrative: that Mrs. Bradley’s son had been technically absent from school for 44 days, and the State of Ohio had a “deadline” for homeschool paperwork that Mrs. Bradley had missed. If we were going to win, I had to persuade at least two of these judges to reject that narrative and embrace the facts.

This isn’t your garden-variety truancy case. Mrs. Bradley’s son, J.B., didn’t miss a single day of instruction, and the instruction he received was exceptional. This isn’t a case about a child whose education was at risk. It’s a criminal prosecution over paperwork.

I glanced around, expecting at any moment to be stopped. Judges can interrupt an attorney at any point during an argument to ask any question he or she feels is important to the case. Our local counsel had told us that Ohio’s Twelfth District Court of Appeals was a “hot” bench—meaning their questions came early and often. And shortly, they would be. But for the moment, they let me continue.

There’s an old Latin maxim that comes to mind: de minimis non curat lex. “The law does not concern itself with trifles.” Yet in this prosecution, the state appears to have lost sight of that maxim.

As I laid out the points I wanted to cover, the court sprang to life, peppering me with thoughtful and probing questions. But by now, nerves had given way to adrenaline. Each question presented an opportunity: to clarify a position, to correct a misunderstanding, to reassert a neglected fact, to expose a weakness in the state’s case, and above all, to bring Valerie’s innocence to the fore.

As the questioning continued, I was greatly aided by the simplicity and straight-forwardness of Valerie’s case. The lower courts convicted Mrs. Bradley because they determined she had missed a deadline. But Ohio doesn’t have a “deadline” for paperwork. True, this district “requested” that paperwork be submitted by August 1st every year, but refusing a request isn’t a crime. And even if a crime had been committed, Ohio law is very clear as to when and how that crime can be charged. The state ignored those detailed instructions.

As each question came, I tried to both answer the question, and to redirect the court’s attention to these core principles. If the questions the prosecutor received are any indication, I think the court took note of them. We left the courthouse without a formal decision, but expect the court to rule sometime in the next four weeks.

If you’re a member of HSLDA or have supported our litigation work by donating to the Homeschool Freedom Fund, I want to extend a special thank-you to you. We’ve spent more than a year trying to get Valerie’s conviction overturned, and that effort—not to mention the more than $10,000 it’s taken thus far to cover the costs and expenses of litigation—is only possible due to your support of homeschool freedom.