K-12 Education

Middle school mock trial competition returns to Linn County Courthouse Saturday

First time courthouse has hosted event since 2008 flood

Mock trial notes. (file photo)
Mock trial notes. (file photo)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Iowa Middle School Mock Trial regional competition comes back to the Linn County Courthouse on Saturday for the first time since the 2008 flood.

The 33rd annual competition, which is the largest of its kind in the nation, involves students in grades 6-8 who are presented with a challenging legal problem and must prepare and present both sides of a court case to a panel of volunteer lawyers and judges.

Tim Semelroth, a Cedar Rapids lawyer, said the regional competition, sponsored by the Iowa State Bar Association, involves 22 teams of 10 students each from Eastern Iowa middle schools. There will be three rounds of trials on Saturday in about seven of the courtrooms. The competition will bring hundreds to the courthouse, he said.   

The rounds are set to start at 8:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The top five, who will be announced at 3:45 p.m., will qualify for the state tournament in Des Moines.

“Sixth Judicial District Judge Christopher Bruns, a longtime supporter of the Iowa mock trial program, has made it his personal mission to bring this competition back to the Linn County Courthouse,” Semelroth said.

Bruns personally recruited fellow judges to participate and even invited local court reporters to attend the trials and add some court realism to the day, he noted. 

Semelroth said Bruns even agreed to open the doors at 7 a.m. Saturday and stay at the courthouse all day until the last participant leaves, since there are no sheriff’s deputies on duty on the weekends.

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Bruns said he got approval for the use of the courthouse by the Linn County Board of Supervisors because holding the competition in actual courtrooms adds to the authenticity. Bruns said has helped coach teams and judge the competition in the past, and enjoys this age group because it’s “so impressive when they are able to get up and perform” at this age.    

Some of the students competing on Saturday also will have the opportunity to watch the actual initial appearances, before they compete, to draw upon for their trials, Bruns said. The court reporters he recruited will also transcribe some of the mock trials to show the students court transcripts.

Semelroth said competing in the mock trials not only give students interested in pursuing a legal career some hands-on experience, but also help any student develop important critical thinking skills and how to conduct research and help with preparation and presentation skills.

Bruns said approximately 10 judges and more than 40 lawyers are helping judge the competition, and many have volunteered as coaches, along with the middle schoolteachers.

Semelroth said each student is judged on criteria such as critical thinking, public speaking, use of courtroom procedure and, for the witnesses, acting skills. The volunteer judges and lawyers give each part of the trial a score from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest.

The team with the highest point total at the end of the trial “wins” the trial, he explained.

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