With chandeliers and gold gilt shining overhead, 16 sixth graders from D.C. public schools were honored in a Supreme Court reception room last week as winners and runners-up in a Law Day essay contest.

"A Special City Needs Special People" was the theme of the contest. Most of the students wrote about confronting the city's problems, not admiring its monuments.

"Our city's jails are full of criminals who try to destroy our beautiful city that people have worked so hard to build," wrote Shannon Ward, a runner-up from Thomas Elementary School. She said the city needs "people who show love and concern for others."

Three Supreme Court justices -- Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O'Connor and Chief Justice Warren Burger -- spoke to the group, which included about 50 parents and teachers. A chorus from Murch Elementary School in Northwest, wearing styrofoam hats and waving small D.C. flags, sang a song written for the contest by music teacher Cerlene Rose.

The winners, each of whom received a $100 savings bond, were Barbara Ricks of Thomas School and Blas Nunez-Neto of Mann Elementary. The other runners-up, each of whom received a $50 bond, were Crystal J. Barnes of Lewis Elementary School; Tammy Bowman, Bunker-Hill Elementary School; Ayanna Brown, Raymond Elementary School; Ronald A. Culmer III, West Elementary School; Darryl Cohen and Marc Owens, both of Takoma Elementary School; Jonathan Daves, Murch Elementary; Dionne Doby, Montgomery; Ann Marie Glanville, Rudolph Elementary School; LaShawn Graham, Moten Elementary School; Yashica Pressley, Payne Elementary School; Peter Sealy, Thomson Elementary School, and James Witherspoon, LaSalle Elementary School.

Cecilia Marshall, Justice Marshall's wife, has been a judge for the contest since it was started by the National Capital Law League 10 years ago.

"I was ordered by my wife to be here," Marshall said after she led him into the conference room. Then he warmed to the occasion. "I say to young people: struggle hard. The only reputation you get rapidly is a bad one. It's so easy. The strength comes when you see something [bad] and say no to it. When you stand up and say no, that's strength."

"We want the students to feel a sense of pride in their city," said Jean Gordon, the contest coordinator, "and more importantly, pride in themselves."