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Northern Indiana judges help create state's mock trial tradition

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Standing between two judges who are offering different opinions on how to proceed is not a place many attorneys would want to find themselves.

However, a group of students at Adams High School in South Bend often found themselves with two opposing pieces of advice from the jurists. Two sets of instructions, two judges and no opportunity to ask for a recess.

mock-2-15col.jpg Judge Robert Miller, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, spends Sunday nights mentoring his daughter’s mock trial team from Adams High School in South Bend. The students are (from front to back): Edward Alexander, Becca Neal, Isabel Bradley, and Maurice Hoban. (Photo submitted)

This was just part of the routine for the mock trial teams coached by Judge Robert L. Miller Jr., seated on the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Indiana, and his wife, St. Joseph Superior Judge Jane Miller.

The Millers have become advocates and eloquent spokespeople for the Indiana Mock Trial program. They coached teams from Adams High School during the late-1990s to the mid-2000s. Their hours of teaching students how to litigate a case culminated in 2003 when their students won third place in the national championship, which at that time was the highest a Hoosier team had ever placed on the national stage.

Moreover, the high standards they set for their students rippled across Northern Indiana as other teams in the region worked harder to compete against Adams High School. Today, Indiana has a strong mock trial program, and its students regularly appear among the top 10 winners in the national competition.

“They did a tremendous job of taking it to the next level, of helping Indiana get to the next level,” Scott Keller of Anderson Agostino & Keller P.C. in South Bend and attorney/coach representative on the Indiana Mock Trial board of directors, said about the Millers.

Although the Millers have stepped back from coaching, the Indiana program will be in the spotlight come May when the state hosts the National High School Mock Trial Championship for the first time. High school students, attorneys and judges from across the country will descend on Indianapolis for three days to demonstrate their knowledge of the legal system.

Students portraying lawyers and witnesses will go into Marion County courtrooms and present their side of the case to the judge. They will make opening and closing statements, present exhibits, examine and cross-examine witnesses, make objections and offer rebuttals just like any licensed practicing attorney would do.

The championship round will be held in federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker’s courtroom in the Birch Bayh Federal Building and United States Courthouse.

“It’s a huge deal. We’re honored to host the national competition,” said Susan Roberts, president and board member of the Indiana Mock Trial program. “I think we’re going to have a great competition.”

Click to learn more about volunteering as a judge for the state and national competitions.

Think like a lawyer

Indiana regional competitions will be held in February followed by the state finals in March. Coaches, who are typically teachers, attorneys or judges, begin working with their students at the start of the fall semester. They teach the rules of litigation as well as the skills of being a lawyer or good witness.

Practice is paramount. What may start out in September as a couple of hours after school grows into several hours a week as the competition gets closer and then blossoms into entire Saturdays spent going over and over the case.

The Millers gave up their Sunday evenings. During the school year, they would invite their team to their home, order pizza and work on the fundamentals.

“Once you get going with it and see the students’ enthusiasm, you just keep going,” Robert Miller said. “There’s really no good way to explain it.”

Nothing in the competition is made easier for the high school students. They are expected to adhere to the same rules and procedures as any attorney who has been through law school. They have to follow the rules of evidence; ask short, concise questions of the witnesses; know the case; and be prepared for anything.

Attorneys who have coached and judged the competition praise the mock trial program as giving the students skills they can use wherever they go and in whatever they do. Critical thinking, public speaking and poise are among the valuable things the students learn and hone.

Jane Miller recalled a science teacher who initially disdained the mock trial program because it took his students away from working on their science projects. However, when he eventually saw these students better presenting their science experiments because of the skills they had acquired in mock trial, he became a fan of the program.

“These kids,” she said, “I can’t overstate how wonderful these kids are.”

The Millers’ daughter Amanda was on their mock trial team her entire high school career and was a member of the 2003 third-place finishers. She always played a witness because she did not want to follow too closely in her parents’ footsteps.

“My parents always gave 100 percent of themselves to their kids while they worked with them,” she said. “They personally believed in the program, that it has a real huge impact on the kids for the rest of their lives.”

And they became notorious for offering different opinions. Usually Robert Miller, who spent the better part of his career on the bench, would tell a student what to do only to be contradicted by Jane Miller who would be prone to exclaim, “Who told you to do that?”

Poor kids, Amanda Miller remembered. Seventeen years old and they didn’t know whose advice to follow.

Still in that moment of diverging paths, Robert Miller taught a fundamental principle of not only law but also of life. There are not always right and wrong answers. In the gray areas, the students would have to sort among all the possible choices and make the decision they think best.

Thrill of the courtroom

The Millers are one example of the volunteers who devote countless hours to the mock trial program. While it may be surprising that attorneys and judges who spend their day practicing law would want to spend their leisure time doing more of the same, the lawyers say the main attraction is the students.

“Some of these students, they just wow you,” said Roberts, retired partner at Stuart & Branigin LLP in Lafayette. One student may use a catchy phrase, and off the cuff their opponent will twist and turn that phrase to support their case.

Mike Lewinski, partner at Ice Miller LLP and mock trial coach at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, enjoys watching the students develop an understanding that perspectives can differ and few things are black and white.

As he teaches his team, he learns as well, he said.

For Robert Miller, the attraction is the enthusiasm the students display. Once in practice, most lawyers are focused on the verdict, wanting to win every case, and they forget the thrill. But in mock trial, just like law school, the focus is on the excitement of getting into the courtroom.

Although the Millers no longer have a team, they stay attached to the program by helping Amanda’s team. As they did when they were coaching, the two judges have the students to their home Sunday nights, provide a meal, and teach them to think and act like lawyers.

“If you’re ever concerned about the future of our courts, go watch these kids and you won’t be concerned anymore,” Jane Miller said. “These are the brightest young people out there.”•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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