Asked & Answered: Jeff May on Mock Trial

 By JO MATHIS

Legal News
 
The Michigan Center for Civic Education’s 2014 Michigan High The Michigan Center for Civic will hold The Washtenaw County Regional of the Michigan High School Mock Trial Tournament in Ann Arbor on March 8 at the Washtenaw County Trial Courthouse.
More than 120 high school students will take on the roles of attorneys and witnesses in this year’s case: People v. Sam Seaside, in which a high-school student is charged with the murder of a missing classmate. Attorney Jeffrey May is law clerk to the Hon. Mona K. Majzoub of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and is director of the MHSMTT.
 
Mathis: When and why did Mock Trial in Michigan come to be?
May: The MCCE started the MHSMTT in 1983 with 10 teams, so this is our 31st year. The goal of the program was (and is) to bring law-related civic education to students through a challenging, stimulating, and educational event. We hope that the students have fun with the event, but more importantly, we want them to walk away with a sense of accomplishment and an understanding of our legal system.
Mathis: The MCCE mission is to provide youth with the knowledge and skills needed to become engaged citizens. How does Mock Trial play a role in that?
May: With all of today’s television coverage focused on the ongoing tension between the President and Congress, people tend to forget that our government is made up of three co-equal branches. Mock Trial helps students understand our legal system and, hopefully, the importance that the judiciary plays in our society. 
 Mathis: Which Washtenaw County high schools participate?
May: Ann Arbor Community High School; Milan High School and Ypsilanti Community High School.
 
Mathis: How are students chosen for Mock Trial? And who are the adults involved?
May: Each team is run by a teacher coach who serves as the designated sponsor for their school. At some schools, this teacher coach is the only adult involved in preparing the team for competition. At other schools, local attorneys volunteer to help out as assistant coaches for the event. It’s really up to each team to decide how their coaches and practices are structured. Likewise, each school decides how they want to choose students for their teams. At some schools, simply being interested is enough for a student to join the team. At other schools, Mock Trial has become akin to a varsity sport where students practice, try out, and are assigned to A, B, C, or even D teams for the competition. Some schools even give out varsity letters for participation.
Mathis: Is it hard to keep the teens focused?
May: I’m sure there are times when they lose focus during practice — some students come to practice several days a week after school from November through March. I think we’d all have a few days when our concentration dipped a bit. But when it comes time for the competition, these students take it very seriously, and they’re all business. I’ve never heard of focus being an issue, which I think really says something about how engaging this type of competition can be. If anything, I think Mock Trial teaches the students how to narrow their focus and keep things interesting.
Mathis: When students are new to Mock Trial, do they have misconceptions about the law, being a lawyer, or how a court is run?
May: I think so, but it would be hard for me to say exactly what those misconceptions are because they vary so widely. More than anything, though, I think that students (and public citizens in general) really have no idea what happens in a courtroom during a trial. A good portion of our parents tells us that they’ve never been in a courtroom before their children participated in our event. That’s pretty eye opening when you think about it.
 Mathis: Who funds Mock Trial?
May: The MHSMTT is run by the MCCE but we rely on registration fees and donations to make it happen. Each year, our funders include the State Bar of Michigan, the Litigation Section of the State Bar of Michigan, and the Oakland County Bar Foundation.
 Mathis: It’s obvious that Mock Trial is beneficial to teens who are interested in a legal career. But what about those who aren’t?
May: Most of our competitors actually don’t go on to legal careers, but we like to say that they all go on to be leaders. Participating in the MHSMTT means more than just practicing a part and presenting it in a courtroom. These students have to read about 50 pages of witness statements, rules, and exhibit; learn the federal rules of evidence (slightly modified); and learn how to make and respond to traditional objections. They learn critical reading and analysis skills. They learn how to take hundreds of facts and distill them down to the important few. And they learn how to speak in public and think on their feet. These are lessons that they’ll benefit from for the rest of their lives.
Mathis: Do you still need volunteers to serve as judges and court officers on March 8? If so, how do people sign up?
May: We are still looking for a few people to serve as judges for the Ann Arbor event and a few people to serve as court officers for our Pontiac event. Judges have to be licensed attorneys, but anyone can serve as a court officer. To signup, visit our website, www.miciviced.org, click on “Mock Trial” and then look for the “Volunteer Today!” link.
Mathis: Anything else you want to add?
May: The only other thing that I think we should touch on is that we’re happy with our participation, but we’re always looking for new teams to join our program. If any attorneys in Michigan would like to get a local high school (their alma mater perhaps) involved in the event next year, they should contact me for more information. I would be happy to provide details on the benefits for the students, how the program fits into the “core curriculum” requirements, and how to get the school involved. In general, it’s easiest to get a school involved when an attorney who is willing to serve as the team coach approaches the school looking for a teacher sponsor.
 

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