There was a time when to be an intern for a judge, you had to have connections. Your family basically had to know the judge personally. Now, thanks to a partnership between the 11th Judicial Circuit and Miami-Dade Public Schools, those days are over.
"All rise, court is now in session, the honorable judge Victoria Del Pino is now presiding," the bailiff announces to those assembled in courtroom 7-3 at the Gersten Justice Building.
It wasn't mock court inside a high school. It wasn't staged, it was an actual criminal trial, and Gabriela Espino watched all of it, sitting right next to the judge.
"It's an experience that kids in law school sometimes won't even get, and we're in high school experiencing something that's so far ahead," said Gabriela, a senior at MAST Academy.
In a courtroom down the hall, another public school student, Adrian Rodriguez-Diaz, was watching the jury selection process, sitting next to judge Alberto Milian.
"At first it was really intimidating, 'cause you have to call them your honor, it's scary, they have this status, but they're actually really friendly," Adrian said.
He's a senior at Law Enforcement Officers Memorial High School and is interning with judge Alan Fine.
"As an audience member you can see a trial and then you leave but when you're with the judge you see what they do inside and the process," Adrian explained.
Adrian and Gabby are pioneers, they're among the 13 students taking advantage of this brand-new part of the district's Academic Year Internship Program. The kids are mentored by judges, and students from any public school in the county are eligible. The program makes sure that kids without connections are now connected.
"It's exciting to know that these young people can be exposed to our justice system, our court system, at such an early age," said judge Andrea Wolfson.
"If you work hard and you have mentors, inevitably an opportunity's going to come into your life that you didn't even know existed," said chief administrative judge Nushin Sayfie.
Judges Wolfson and Sayfie did the groundwork at the courthouse to make the program a reality.
"The world is different now, the opportunities are different, and I think this is definitely something to get behind," Wolfson said.
The experience for the interns goes way beyond just learning how the justice system works from the inside. The internship can also be a stepping stone for their academic futures.
"So we help them with advice but also with connections and like it or not, in this world, a work ethic is really important, I think it's top of the list, but a close second to having a work ethic is just having a door open for you," Sayfie said, mentioning as well that a recommendation letter from a circuit judge looks very good on a college application.
The interns get an honors-level credit at school for spending five to ten hours a week at the courthouse. They also get a first-hand immersion into the real world.
"I've seen so many interesting cases and like, every day I go to school with a new story to tell my friends," Gabby said.