PORTLAND – The clerk was stationed at a tiny school desk below the stage, the marshals were peeking out at the auditorium from behind a curtain, and the justices were out of sight in the health office — their temporary chambers.

The Deering High School auditorium was the venue for oral arguments before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday.

Eli Small, the social studies teacher who initiated the visit by the court, explained to the audience of students that this was no re-enactment they were about to witness, but actual arguments for real cases. So the reminder to turn off cellphones was particularly relevant.

“You’re going to see something live. It’s going to be action-packed,” promised Democratic state Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland, who had extended the formal invitation to the court.

Several hundred students listened as lawyers presented their arguments and the justices peppered them with questions.

The first case involved the immigration consequences of pleading guilty to drug trafficking, the second was a worker’s compensation dispute, and the third was over the consent decree governing Pike Industries’ quarrying in Westbrook. The lawyers were available to answer questions after each case was heard.

Maine’s highest court has been hearing arguments at high schools around the state for the past six years. The practice has its roots in a conversation between Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and John Martin, a Democrat from Aroostook County who was then a state senator, about connecting schools to the three branches of government.

“What surprised us at the time was how engaged the students were — even in issues like land use, which is not something you typically think of as something students will connect to,” Saufley said during a brief interview.

On Tuesday, the first case heard at Deering involved an immigrant from Somalia who says he should get a new trial because his lawyer didn’t explain that his guilty plea to aggravated trafficking in marijuana would automatically make him subject to deportation.

Part of the discussion centered around whether the trial lawyer’s explanation that immigration consequences were possible — versus the information that the conviction would automatically prompt deportation proceedings — was sufficient.

Matt Kimball, a senior in Small’s “Street Law” class, wasn’t sure which side he supported. His classmate Karl Rickett seemed to be leaning toward the appellant.

“I think he should have been told at least they were going to deport him,” he said. “It didn’t seem, from what I understand, that they gave him the whole information about what would happen.”

The court’s travels continue this week. The justices will be at Richmond High School on Thursday and at Lisbon High School on Friday.

Justice Ellen Gorman said, “It definitely gives us a chance to get out into the world that we otherwise would not have.”

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]