Mock Trial judges and students pose for a photo after the state championship round in Madison in March. The event judges are, back row, from left: Judge Brian Blanchard, Attorney Kevin Lonergan, Justice Dan Kelly, Judge Stephen Crocker, and Judge John Jorgensen.
Nov. 15, 2017 – Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly returned to the Supreme Court Hearing Room on a Sunday last March – but not to hear a case before the court.
Instead, he was there to make evidentiary rulings (something supreme court justices don’t do), and rate the effectiveness of witnesses and lawyers – on a numerical scale.
It wasn’t a typical day in court for him: those witnesses and lawyers were teenagers. He spent the weekend serving as a judge for the Wisconsin High School Mock Trial semifinal and final tournaments.
“Ultimately, it was fun – I enjoyed doing it,” he said.
The Mock Trial Program
Wisconsin’s High School Mock Trial program, partially funded by the Wisconsin Law Foundation, provides high school students with an opportunity to act as attorneys and witnesses in a fictitious court case developed by State Bar members. The teams are coached by volunteer lawyers and teachers across the state.
The students – in teams of six to 12 – argue the case before a panel of volunteer attorney judges in the regional, semifinal, and final competitions. The program gives students experience analyzing and preparing a case, presenting evidence as witnesses, arguing their role as prosecution or defense, and receiving input and feedback from attorneys and judges. In addition to giving students skills as leaders, it also inspires some to pursue a career in law.
In 2017, a record 118 teams – with 1,500 high school students assisted by 550 attorney volunteers – participated in the program, competing in regional trials across the state in February, and semifinals and finals in March in Madison. The state finalists compete in a national Mock Trial championship, typically in May.
Justice Dan Kelly, right, consults with Kevin Lonergan during the state championship round in March.
Polish and Poise
Justice Kelly walked into his first experience as a Mock Trial judge with expectation. “I was very curious to see what kind of commitment they made to the program,” he said. After all, students have a lot of other things going on in their lives.
Yet, the students’ degree of polish and poise was a pleasant surprise for him. “They look like accomplished litigators,” he said. “I had to remind myself that these students were not even in law school or college, but high school.”
The task required prior preparation – the Mock Trial program has its own competition rules, including those of evidence. And all teams argue the same case, either on the plaintiff or defense side (doing both sometimes on the same day in different rounds).
“I made sure to be prepared to do a good job for the students, who put so much of their heart and soul into this project,” he said.
While students all work with the same facts and exhibits of the case, they also must learn to respond appropriately to the opposing team's presentation of evidence and objections.
“They don’t know how a witness may bring a role to life,” Justice Kelly said. Each presentation is different, requiring a different response. “They need to think on their feet to respond to these variations,” he said.
Wanted: 600 Judges for Mock Trial Tournaments in February and March
In 2017, a record 118 schools participated in High School Mock Trial across Wisconsin. More are anticipated for 2018.
Judge- and attorney-volunteers are needed to serve as presiding judges and scoring judges for the Wisconsin High School Mock Trial regional and semifinal tournaments. The regional tournament is Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, and takes place at locations statewide. The semifinal tournament is Friday, March 9, and Saturday, March 10, 2018, in Madison.
To volunteer or for more information, visit wisbar.org/mocktrial, click the volunteer button, and sign up for the semifinals. If you have questions, contact Katie Wilcox by org kwilcox wisbar email or by phone at (608) 257-3838 ext. 6191.
“I love it,” Justice Kelly said, when high school students show the dedication and initiative required to succeed at Mock Trial. “They’re stepping out of their comfort zone and engaging in an activity that takes rigorous thought and preparation – which is something we should applaud.”
He hopes some participants will go on to pursue law as a profession. “This is an opportunity to encourage students to start thinking about entering into an honorable practice,” he said. “The profession always has room for good practitioners.”
A Good Experience for Lawyers
“For my fellow lawyers who have a passion for the law, they will find this immensely fulfilling and enjoyable,” Justice Kelly said. “I encourage them to come and join me in judging the Mock Trial competition. It is a well-rewarded investment in time.”
And it’s a good way to experience what it is like behind the bench. “It does bring home a sense of responsibility for procedure,” Justice Kelly said.
Another great way to volunteer is as an attorney-coach for a mock trial team. During his days as a volunteer judge, he encountered several friends serving as coaches for the teams -- something, he said, that delighted him. “They do this because they care about the profession and about the students. It is great that they take the time to do this,” Justice Kelly said.
Does he plan to volunteer again in 2018?
“I will be there with proverbial bells on,” he said.