President’s Column: Mock Trial, Genuine Competition.
by Scott McElhaney
Campbell Colquitt was astonished when she saw a post on her company’s electronic bulletin board stating that she had contracted a rare but horrid and extremely contagious disease called Seeliasis on her recent vacation in the tropics. She was even more shocked when she saw that a co-worker named Casey Hogg appeared as the author of the post. Both Colquitt and Hogg had applied to become the new Manager of Quality Control for their employer, HOPco. Colquitt, a well-regarded mechanical engineer with about ten years of experience, was generally considered to be in line to succeed Judy Yarbro as the quality control manager. Hogg had qualifications of his own and was liked by some of the executives at the company, but he did not have as much experience at HOPco.
Colquitt had returned from her vacation just in time for her interview for the manager position. She had a bad sunburn and blisters from spending too much time hiking in the noon-day sun. She looked terrible. During her interview, she began feeling ill and had to leave early in order to go to the doctor. A day later, Colquitt’s doctor, Sayers Stockdale, told her that a blood test showed that she had Seeliasis and that she had to be quarantined immediately. Colquitt did not tell anyone about her diagnosis except for her close friend, Sterling Hobby, who had also applied for the quality control manager position.
It turns out that Colquitt did not have Seeliasis. A few days after the first diagnosis, the blood testing lab called Dr. Stockdale’s office to say that further exams had revealed that Colquitt only had Shigellosis, an infection easily treated with antibiotics. The nurse who received the message ran through the office waiting room shouting to the doctor that Colquitt did not have Seeliasis, but only Shigellosis. It turns out that Hogg was in the waiting room, waiting to have his annual physical.
The next day, the post about Colquitt having Seeliasis appeared on the company bulletin board. Many co-workers added comments that Colquitt never should have come back to work and exposed them to a contagious disease that caused cramps, nausea, vomiting, and oozing blisters. When Colquitt came back to work, she was shunned and isolated. That is when she saw the posts about her supposed case of Seeliasis.
When Hogg won the promotion for the quality control manager position, Colquitt thought she knew what had happened: Hogg had posted a false story about her in order to win the job. She decided to sue for defamation.
Discovery revealed interesting facts. Hogg swore in his deposition that he did not write the post and that he had locked his computer and gone on a break when the post was made from his computer. A company investigation showed that Hobby, the only person who Colquitt had told about the Seeliasis diagnosis, had made Internet searches from her work computer about the disease. Hobby was also a self-confessed germaphobe, and she took it upon herself to clean and disinfect many of the HOPco offices. She was seen entering Hogg’s office (ostensibly to clean it), but witnesses were unsure whether it was on the day the post appeared. Hobby also claimed that she did not know Hogg’s computer password, but Hogg said that it was widely known that HOPco employees kept their passwords on notes taped under their mouse pads.
So did Hogg make the Seeliasis post knowing it was false in an effort to boost his chances for the promotion? Or did Hobby make the post, hoping to frame Hogg and increase her own chances at getting the job? Only a trial could answer the question.
This fictional case, set in a world where most of the characters have the same names as former Texas governors, formed the dispute that high school mock trial teams have been trying in competitions across Texas this year. In early March, 24 of the best teams from across the state gathered at the George Allen courthouse in Dallas for the Texas High School Mock Trial Championships. The Dallas Bar Association’s Mock Trial Committee has organized and administered this competition for the entire state for the past 35 years. The committee—led by Steve Gwinn, Steve Russell, Jennifer Crane and Prater Monning—volunteers an untold number of hours preparing case materials. Along with State Mock Trial Coordinator Kimberlynn Taylor, who ably stepped in in the middle of the year, the committee also coordinated and ran many of the regional tournaments that precede the state finals.
Of course, the real work was done by the teams of 10 students from the participating high schools who act as the lawyers and witnesses. The mock trial program gives students the experience of trying a case in a real courtroom in a hands-on role. Trials are structured just like a real court, and the rules of evidence apply. The students learn exactly what role judges, lawyers, witnesses play in the judicial system. The teams are coached by teachers and often by volunteer attorneys who help the students prepare. The preparation is intense and thorough. One mother of a student in the state championship this year reported that her child’s team had been scrimmaging after school until about 8:00 pm most days for the preceding few weeks, leaving homework to be done from the time students got home through about midnight.
Many DBA members contributed time and energy to make this year’s competition a rousing success. Judges lent their courtrooms for the competition. Hundreds of DBA members volunteered to serve as scoring judges, and several real judges volunteered to preside over the mock trials, including judges Elizabeth Frizell, Lana Myers, Elizabeth Lang-Miers, Irma Ramirez, Jeff Rosenfield, Doug Skemp andKen Tapscott. The competition also could not be the success it was without the financial support of the Gwinn Family Foundation, Tom Goranson, Peter Malouf, the DBA Tort & Insurance Practice Section and the Dallas Bar Foundation.
This year’s final four consisted of Carrollton Creekview High School, Covenant Classical School from Fort Worth, Dallas Hillcrest High School and Richardson High School. Covenant Classical’s tournament run was especially impressive, as this is its first year participating in the mock trial competition. The final round pitted last year’s champion, Creekview, against Hillcrest, which fielded a team mostly made up of younger students. In the end, Creekview prevailed with an outstanding performance from both witnesses and lawyers alike. As Justice Lana Myers said after the round, the performance of both teams was better than one often sees in a real courtroom.
As Texas state champions, Creekview will travel to the National High School Mock Trial Championship in Madison, Wisconsin in about a month. Creekview represented Texas at the national competition last year, and learned a great deal there. With a team of six seniors, three juniors, and a sophomore, let’s hope that they prevail in Wisconsin and bring home a national championship.