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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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