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Where legal dreams are made

The courtroom stirs with anticipation. Lawyers make last minute preparations, witnesses sit anxiously in the front row and then suddenly the judge enters. All rise. For some in the crowd, this may all seem ridiculous. The lawyers aren’t really lawyers; they’re college or high school students. The witnesses are their schoolmates. The case the judge will hear didn’t actually happen. For the next few hours, everyone in the courtroom shares a fantasy involving expert witnesses, emotional defendants and ruthless attorneys.

But the one element of reality everyone shares in that courtroom is the competition underlying the fantasy—the two opposing teams of attorneys are actually being scored based on their performance. This is Mock Trial, and by the middle of the competition you may just be so drawn into the game that you forget that no attorney in the competition has actually passed the bar examination.

I sent several interview questions to Duke Mock Trial members, and eight students responded with comments. The responses opened a window into what makes the mock world tick.

Some of the current Duke competitors did compete in their high school’s Mock Trial program, but everyone stressed that prior experience is not at all a prerequisite. One of the major commonalities was competitors’ career interests. Almost every respondent plans to be a real-life lawyer some day. But, according to the respondents, sharpening logic skills, making new friends, improving debate and public speaking skills and taking the occasional road trip are some of the draws that could attract even the mechanical engineer-in-training. The time commitment is significant, but worthwhile, according to the responses.

John Wheeler, Trinity ’84 and the current president of the Board of Directors of the National High School Mock Trial Championship, also stressed the benefits and excitement of Mock Trial. Tens of thousands of students compete at the state level and are faced with problems that advance critical thinking skills. But the competition is no longer limited to just U.S. participants. South Korea, for example, competes in the tournament, playing by the rules of the U.S. legal system. Wheeler suggested that today’s Mock Trial competition may eventually lead to a new separate international tournament.

But not all has been well in the fantasy realm of Mock Trial competition. Some Duke participants responded that sexism plays a role in scoring, with women being judged more harshly than their male counterparts. And the scoring system, being so subjective, is always a debatable issue, especially when those being scored happen to be the future attorneys of the world.

Perhaps the most controversial issue in Mock Trial’s history has been scheduling at the high school level. In 2005, an orthodox Jewish team from New Jersey made it to the national competition. The competition took place over a weekend, but the Jewish team could not compete during the Sabbath. At first, the national organization refused to accommodate the team, but at the actual competition site, a number of teams volunteered to compete in an extra round against New Jersey on Friday. Although the competition schedule was altered a bit, the accommodation process seemed to work well.

Wheeler said that, at the time, the national high school organization was divided on whether to accommodate religious scheduling conflicts. To ensure competitive fairness and logistic ease for teams coming in from other parts of the country, the national board chose not to accommodate conflicts. A few states boycotted and at least two current Duke students were unable to go on to the national tournament.

The American Mock Trial Association, governing the college competition, chose a less absolute route. Rule 4.29 of the AMTA rulebook allows for some accommodation to be determined on a case by case basis, but still does not allow for “fundamental changes in the format of the tournament.” Many of the Duke respondents noted that Bob Jones University cannot compete in the national tournament because they do not compete on Sundays for religious reasons.

During this past high school national tournament, another Jewish team asked for a schedule change. After threats by real attorneys and judges, accommodations were made. The issue forced the hand of the national organization, and after a “contentious” debate, Wheeler said that the policy would be changed to accommodate such teams.

Wheeler wants to move past the controversy. Mock Trial “should be a celebration of what kids can do,” he said. The benefits of Mock Trial should help make the transition process a bit easier. But Wheeler, always staying optimistic, was open to one possibility to revisit the controversy: “If you want to develop it as a Mock Trial case….” Perhaps the fantasy world isn’t really so much a fantasy.

Elad Gross is a Trinity senior. This is his last column of the semester.


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