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Montana high school mock trial gets day in court

Thursday, June 18, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Joe Menden
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By Joe Menden

Organizers for the Montana High School Mock Trial Competition thought their goal for the tournament’s first year was an ambitious one – attracting six teams. After all, previous attempts to drum up support for a statewide competition were unsuccessful at drawing the two schools with competing teams –the minimum required for a National Mock Trial Championships qualifying tournament.

So when 12 total teams from across the state filled the Montana Capitol for the March tournament – one that featured intense competition and an awards ceremony with cheers loud enough to rival game day in some college football stadiums – it was a successful debut by any measure.

According to State Bar of Montana Executive Director John Mudd, the statewide coordinator of the mock trial competition, said that the tournament’s success would not have been possible without the overwhelming support of Montana’s legal community, including critical funding from the Montana chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). Mudd noted that each competing school must have a lawyer as one of its coaches, and numerous lawyers, judges and other legal professionals are needed as volunteers to judge. A total of 38 volunteered to judge, including a panel for the final round consisting of Montana Supreme Court Justices Beth Baker and Jim Shea, ABA Immediate Past President Bob Carlson, and State Bar of Montana President Juli Pierce.

Mudd said it was inspiring to see the teams in action.

“The talent and intelligence of every student was amazing,” he said. “This competition provides a great opportunity for students to engage in public speaking. It also instills in them the idea that they could have a career in the law.”

Mudd credited Helena attorneys David and Kayleigh Morine, along with Helena High School teacher Kacey Askin for spearheading the effort of getting mock trial off the ground in Montana. The three, who have coached mock trial at Helena High for several years, did outreach at bar events and Montana teacher conferences to build support for a state mock trial competition. He also thanked Idaho attorney Greg Dickison for helping get the program up and running and traveling to Helena to help with the tournament.

For years, Helena High was a team in search of competition. With no other Montana mock trial teams, they turned to Idaho’s mock trial tournament for courtroom action, where they were welcomed as competitors but without the possibility of advancing to nationals.

That experience proved valuable, as Helena High was represented by both teams that advanced to the finals. The winning team consisted of Sage Eck-Miller, Morgan Hill, Isaac Nehring, Grace Johnson, Ivan Kloberdanz, Dakota Franklin and Lauren Irwin – all of whom had competed in at least one out-of-state mock trial, according to the coaches.

David Morine said mock trial is an educational experience first and a competition second.

“It’s really impressive to see how seriously these kids take it,” he said. “We don’t have to dumb it down for these kids.”

Unfortunately, the National Mock Trial Tournament had to be canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Morine said the state champion team was understandably disappointed but appreciated the need to cancel

“Many other states were unable to hold their state tournaments because of the pandemic, and we were lucky enough to be able to have our tournament here in Montana before the virus spread,” he said.

Kalispell Flathead High School took third place with a 3-1 record and nine winning ballots. Billings Skyview was fourth at 3-1 with seven winning ballots. The competition also included teams from Big Sky Lone Peak, Billings West, Helena Capital, two teams from Stillwater Christian, and an additional three teams from Helena High.

Alanah Griffith and fellow Gallatin County lawyer Matt Dodd coached the Lone Peak High School team. Griffith had previously coached the school’s Model UN team and said she was looking for a new academic project when she heard about mock trial.
She said teaching the law from the ground up was a lot of work, but it was well worth it to see the team members blossom and come out of their shells. In addition to finishing 2-2 in its trials, Lone Peak finished in a three-way tie with two of the Helena teams for the Civility and Ethics Award, voted on by the other teams.
Griffith plans to coach again next year and said her team was all underclassmen, and they are excited to participate again too.

Helena attorney Qasim Abdul-Baki was among the volunteer judges and loved it. He said he has judged speech and debate competitions in the past, but he found mock trial much more interesting and enjoyable. It didn’t hurt that he got a standing ovation when he introduced himself as a public defender, he said.

Courtroom artist competition

In addition to the litigation aspect, the mock trial competition also featured a courtroom artist component.

Taking first place was Sydney Loudermilk of Flathead High School with the sketch titled “Allen Giving His Opening Statement.” An untitled sketch from Selah Neumann of Stillwater Christian won first runner-up, and Noalani Old Elk of Billings West was second runner-up with a sketch of titled “Old Supreme Court.”

Entries were judged on several criteria, including accuracy of proportion, realism, and authenticity regarding traditional courtroom sketching. Matt Thiel and Greg Munro, both lawyers and artists from Missoula, volunteered to judge the courtroom artist competition.

The three works are featured on the cover of this month's Montana Lawyer.

Joe Menden is the editor of the Montana Lawyer