Mock trial season kicks off this Friday when about 3,500 high school students will descend on county courthouses around the state to take part in the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education’s 34th Annual Ohio Mock Trial district competition.
Teams of five to 11 students will assume the roles of witnesses and attorneys to present both sides of an original case based on a constitutional issue.
Ryan Suskey, director of professional development and programs at the Center for Law-Related Education, said that this year about 350 teams of students will be competing at the district level.
About 1,500 volunteer attorneys will be on hand at 27 different courthouse sites as the teams compete simultaneously for the chance to advance to the regional competition.
Suskey said that some of the larger sites are expecting about 50 teams, or about 500 students in the county courthouse.
The Franklin County Municipal Court is expecting 28 teams from 18 different high schools.
“Our goal is to be here as support for our volunteers,” Suskey said. “We’re very fortunate to have the support of local bar associations and volunteer attorneys around the state who run each of those competitions.”
The structure of the mock trial tournament is three-tiered.
At the district level, teams will take part in two trials for the same case, presenting both the plaintiff’s and the defendant’s side of the case.
Teams that win both of those trials will move on to the regional competition in February. On average, Suskey said that about a third of the teams move on after each tier.
The winners of both trials at regionals will compete at the state championship in Columbus in March.
This year’s case is Pat Justice v. CAT News et al. The fictional lawsuit concerns the defamation of a candidate for re-election for governor by a news station.
The case summary states that Governor Pat Justice speaks at a school assembly and meets with the school principal afterward, when an argument ensues.
Governor Justice leaves abruptly and the principal is found dead from a brain aneurysm.
A student who overheard the argument reports to a local news outlet that Governor Justice killed the principal.
While the student’s account is quickly disproved, the story goes viral and the governor loses his bid for re-election. He then files civil suit against the news station, alleging defamation.
“Each year, we sit down with a group of volunteer attorneys, we have a case committee that meets annually,” Suskey said of developing this year’s case. “They take a look back at what we’ve done in the past and what is happening nationally in terms of current events and we look at how we can build a case out of this that teaches students a very important lesson.”
The case is always based on a constitutional issue and Suskey said that this year the students are looking at defamation in terms of freedom of the press and public officials, and especially how difficult it is to prove defamation in the age of the rapid spread of information.
When asked if the recent election motivated this year’s case selection, Suskey said that current events often influence the process but the goal is to translate the current political climate into an enduring lesson.
“We very much wanted the issue to be something that we think in some ways is timeless, not commenting necessarily on the candidates,” Suskey said.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals case SBA List v. Driehaus, which tested state laws regarding defamation, was also an inspiration for this year’s mock trial case.
“In this year’s case and in all of them, we like students to see that the law is a multi-layered thing,” Suskey said, noting that students are taught about the rule of law in the nation and the role of courts in the justice system.
But the competition is not just for students who want to study law. More than anything, Suskey said that the goal of the program is to help students build confidence, public speaking skills, and an ability to analyze tough issues from more than one perspective.
“Too often in daily life we allow ourselves to self-select our camps,” Suskey said. “The competition forces students to think about an issue from both sides, and they have to give equal weight to each, they have to spend time and think, ‘If I had to argue this from the other side, what would I think?’
“It’s one of the things that is very unique to the program and we hope that students gain an appreciation of looking at issues from each side.”