This school year, a mock trial program in California is helping 10,000 students from 36 counties to learn about the U.S. legal system. By some accounts, the program - which started small 35 years ago at a handful of Los Angeles high schools - has been life changing.
More than 1,000 judges, commissioners, and attorneys volunteer as coaches, presiders, and scorers for the program, run by the nonprofit Constitutional Rights Foundation. This month each county will send its winning team of students to the state finals in Riverside.
Leanne E. Hartmann, an associate at K&L Gates, volunteers as a lead coach for mock trial students at San Francisco's Academy of Arts and Sciences. "It can be the most stressful part of my week," she says, referring to the challenge of keeping young minds motivated. "But it's really rewarding to watch students get comfortable in their own skins, and to watch them come together as a team."
The foundation prepares case materials, and this year's concentrates on Miranda rights for a teen accused in a hit-and-run accident; some testimony suggests he was texting while driving.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald H. Rose has served as a mock trial judge for almost 30 years. "About 250,000 students have been through the program," he says. "Add in siblings, parents, grandparents, and friends who come to watch - and we've impacted many people. They'll know more about the justice system, be better jurors, and more informed voters."
Many mock trial participants later become lawyers. J'me Forrest, who competed for three years for James Monroe High in Los Angeles, a decade later is a law graduate of USC. Forrest has already volunteered for the program and she hopes to continue. "It's critical for students from low-income backgrounds who don't have access to the professional circles required to get jobs. To hear judges and lawyers say: 'Hey, you seem intelligent.' Or, 'You did a really good closing argument.' That makes more of an impression than they ever might know."