This is my fifth year coaching Mock Trial at MHS; a former student of mine asked me to help her get the program going that summer of 2004. We petitioned the school board after gathering information, and I finished that year with eight students–the bare minimum–who were willing to put in the time and effort.
We did very well our inaugural year—made it to fourth round. And, as I recall, I was in the hospital for at least one of the rounds.
What a year!
In the years since, the team has expanded–I’m on my second year of two teams, and I have 21 students involved right now in grades 9-12. We’ve done well every year, last year coming within a few points of going to State.
I believe in this program. Those involved learn confidence, logic, critical thinking, and their ability to communicate ideas and perspectives increases dramatically. Poise, civility, the ability to not express anger at bad judging…all of that is important.
These kids start their work in late September/early October, and practice several times a week for four months. We generally meet evenings, weekends (countless hours in a neighboring Courthouse on Saturdays practicing), Christmas vacation. They write, they edit, they memorize, they research, they perform.
All that for only two guaranteed trials. Months and months of work for about three hours’ total performance time (though we usually move on to further rounds).
So, what’s my gripe?
All this work, and we pay the State Bar $250 per team, and they do, indeed, try very hard to make things run smoothly, but I’m always astounded at how little the official judges (mostly lawyers volunteering their time) actually know. We have more terrible judges than good ones, unfortunately, and it’s been that way every year. (Again, it’s not the State Bar’s fault–Emily Reilly, head of the state’s Mock Trial program for a few years now, works her butt off and she’s got things running soooo much more smoothly than her predecessor–she’s my hero!)
They, more often than not, do not know the differences in rules between Mock Trial and real courtroom behavior. They don’t allow responses to objections (even though it’s in the rules and that’s how we’re supposed to score points), they don’t know the time limits, they don’t know how we’re guided to introduce exhibits.
They don’t know how the scoring works–last year, we had a nice judge who agreed, afterward, that my team had kicked major butt over the other team, but didn’t want the other team to feel bad so she awarded points only a few numbers apart. She wasn’t aware–it hurts to even say this–that we advance rounds by the total *differential* between scores, not just by winning. When I informed her, she was horrified by what she’d done, but couldn’t change it.
They don’t follow procedure, often, and even those that claim to have several years’ experience seem oblivious to the basic rules, much of the time.
And, perhaps most onerous, every trial is supposed to have two judges–that helps alleviate some of the subjectivity and lack of knowledge of rules. So, how often do we, out here in the rural world, actually get two judges?
In five years, I could probably count on one hand the number of trials, during rounds 1 and 2, that we’ve had two judges. It’s to the point where we coaches are pleasantly surprised when we see two there.
So, my kids get shortchanged. It’s not just about winning or losing–my varsity team won on Wednesday, as well they should have–but about missing chances to use what they’ve learned. It’s about their having donated hundreds of hours of time, plus money to participate, to have to be subject to the off-rules whims of lawyers who don’t know what’s up.
Is this a good object lesson about how life isn’t always fair, and we need to learn to rise above it? Absolutely.
And I also am grateful that these lawyers and judges donate their time for a program that involves driving to other courtrooms, spending a couple of hours listening to novices try a case, scoring and offering comments, when they could be doing something more fun or lucrative.
But is it too much to ask that they know the rules? That they know how to freaking SCORE (especially since guides are readily available at the state website, and scoring rules are clearly delineated)?
It breaks my heart every time I see my kids shot down without warrant simply because the Judge wasn’t aware of the rules. At the same time, I’m inevitably so very proud of my kids when they accept such judgements with equanimity and respect, as they’ve learned, even if it’s not right.
I love my Mock kids. But for this kind of time and money, I want well-trained judges, especially when everything rides on just two trials after months and months of work.