The View from the Bench – A Day Judging Mock Trial

You don't even like feetball. I'm the number one super fan!

"You don't even like feetball. I'm the number one super fan!"

Giants Schmiants.

On Superbowl Sunday, I watched a real competition at the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center, where the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) held its Philadelphia Regional competition, sponsored by Drexel University. This was my second year judging, and my impressions this year were the same as last.

Wow. These kids were good – not just in a “oh look college kids can dress up in suits and play lawyer” good.

I saw real mastery of the Rules of Evidence. The contestants were polished orators and appeared comfortable in Court. Legal arguments made sense. The contestants told their clients’ stories as more than just a collection of facts. Objections were skillfully made and argued.

And I sat in judgment of all of them from the Bench.

Things are very different when you’re looking down from the bench. You’re expected to make judgments on facts, evidence, and law – no, you don’t get time to research the answer – because everyone’s waiting for your ruling so you can keep the case going. It certainly made me appreciate the difficulty of a trial judge’s job (and just maybe may increase my tolerance for an adverse ruling now and then).

These are my takeaways from the weekend:

  • Sitting as a judge is harder than I thought. While I’d like to think I have a good handle on the Rules of Evidence, I’d often hear an excellent argument regarding from a contestant, either supporting or responding to an objection, that made me question my familiarity with the rules. Not to mention that you can’t really even let your mind wander for a minute, because that’s invariably when you’ll hear “objection!” – and have no idea why it was made.
  • Volunteering as a judge is helpful to identify distracting courtroom behaviors – and kick the bad habits yourself. Instead of just hearing about how “um, er, uh” are to an examination, you see it yourself. Swaying, pacing, leaning, and hand-in-pocket annoy more than you’d realize. I also learned my new personal peeve: responding to a witness’ every answer with “ok” before answering your next question.
  • Many practicing attorneys could learn a thing or two about demeanor from these contestants.
  • We Philadelphia-area attorneys may have a house style for trials. Six out of the eight teams were from the Philly metro region (Princeton, Drexel, LaSalle, Penn, Nova, & Temple).
  • I need to spend a few hours with the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence reviewing my hearsay exceptions.

For those of you who have a free weekend, I’d highly recommend that you reach out to AMTA or another mock trial organization and volunteer to serve as a judge. It will be a literal and figurative change of perspective that may help to improve your own trial skills. And at a minimum, it’s fun to play judge for a day.

It’s nice to see such a bright future for our profession.

Good luck to all the schools who were awarded bids to the Opening Round Championship Series, March 17-  18, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

Note: Leo never did mock trial in college because he worked stupid early hours making coffee at Starbucks, but he would have if he could have arranged it. Instead, he dabbles in “mock judging”, which is damn fun. Also, Judge’s chairs are pretty comfortable.

Special thanks to Grant Keener, Drexel University’s Prelaw Advisor, for the invitation to judge.

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