Tale of a trial

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The audience in courtroom 880 in the Ramsey County Courthouse was quiet. Heads were bowed and some hands were clasped as they waited for the verdict to be read. The resolution would be the culmination of five months of testimony, preparation and hard work. The small slip of paper containing the name of the winner was handed to Supreme Court Justice Paul H. Anderson who glanced at the words, refolded it, nodded and handed it to presiding Judge James Dehn to read to the crowd.

With his usual dramatic flair, Judge Dehn slowly opened the paper and reviewed its contents. He then looked up at the crowd of eager eyes and announced – “the winner is Lakeville North High School!”. Half the crowd erupted with cheers, high 5’s and back slaps while the other half sighed their disappointment. This was the scene at the finals of the Minnesota State Bar Association’s mock high school league, as observed by Emily Reilly, the mock trial director. And for the first time in the twenty-two year history of the program, Lakeville North was crowned the champions. The team of high school students emerged victorious over the students from White Bear Lake North High School after a grueling two-and-one-half hour trial on March 12.

“Mock trial gives kids an inside look at America’s legal system,” stated Reilly. “It also helps kids develop teamwork and critical thinking skills.”

High schools throughout the state are invited to participate in the program each year and to enter teams of 8-14 students. Volunteer attorneys develop a mock case that the students use to prepare arguments and witnesses. Mock trial teams then compete against each other throughout the season and teams are scored based on presentation, mastery of the facts and the ability to publicly speak and think on their feet. The merits of the case and whoever wins or loses the case itself are not factors for the score sheets.

The Minnesota mock trial program was taken on by the Minnesota State Bar Association in 1984. Only a handful of schools participated then. In that inaugural year, Cloquet High School won the state championship and went on to place second at the national championships. Since the 1980s, the mock high school program has grown to include more than 1,500 students in the state of Minnesota and over 135 teams. In addition to the student participants, more than 600 attorneys volunteer their time as coaches and judges for the program and roughly 100 teachers volunteer to coach as well.

Although mock trial focuses on the legal system, most of the students who participate do not end up going to law school. “The great thing is, the skills they learn can be applied to almost any profession,” said Reilly.

Minnesota’s First Lady Mary Pawlenty spoke at the awards banquet for this year’s season. Pawlenty encouraged the students to seek out their passion, whether it be a legal career or otherwise.

Pawlenty reminisced about her worst job in ninth grade at a fish plant in Massachusetts. She worked on a scallop line, digging through fish goop to find scallops. Upon her return to school after the summer, she noted that she certainly “worked harder and got good grades” knowing that working on a fish plant was not something she wanted as a permanent career. Pawlenty encouraged the students to take on one horrible summer job to provide a reference with which to gauge all other employment experiences.

The winners from Lakeville North High School are now looking forward to representing Minnesota at the national championships in Wilmington, Delaware in May. With the skills they have developed through mock trial, the twelve young men and women on this team can certainly look forward to futures that probably do not involve fish plants.

Emily Cooper is an attorney and wrote this article as a participant in the citizen journalism workshop offered by EXCO, the Experimental College.

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