January 2021

Mock trial: The show must go on

By Dyan Ebert

Would you agree to represent Payton and Parker or Nixon Lodge in this case? 

Payton Knox, a local hockey hero, and Parker Stevenson became engaged to be married in 2019. Payton’s parent, Jordan Knox, formerly a well-known clothier in Hibbing, was as excited as Payton for this wedding, with visions of grandchildren dancing in their head. The happy couple’s parents each agreed to foot 35 percent of the wedding costs. The big day was to be July 4, 2020, the five-year anniversary of when Payton and Parker met. The venue was to be Nixon Lodge, a lovely old hotel, reminiscent in some ways (at least for Payton) of the old Hibbing High School. The venue and catering services were booked in June 2019. 

Payton, Parker, and their respective parents were fairly well off and they were going to make this the wedding of the decade. The wedding was planned for about 250 people (and two dogs); dozens of friends and relatives were going to be flown in from all over the country (and from France, where Jordan still has family). 

Then the covid-19 pandemic began its deadly path across America. By March 2020, Minnesota was in shutdown mode, airlines had all but stopped flying, and people were socially distancing and wearing masks. The hotel and restaurant businesses were required to develop preparedness plans regarding how they would conduct business in the face of covid. Based on the rules promulgated by the Minnesota Department of Health, the recommendations of the Hibbing Health and Safety inspector, and the age and physical layout of the Nixon Lodge, the owner and sales manager, Kris Nixon, informed the Knoxes that the maximum size of the wedding would be 75 and that masks, social distancing, and other health precautions would be required. When the Knoxes balked at these restrictions, Nixon Lodge offered to look for an alternative date, for a fee. The Knoxes were outraged and demanded either the wedding of Payton and Parker’s dreams or their money back. Nixon Lodge refused. Payton Knox sued Nixon Lodge for a return of all the money they put down; Nixon Lodge answered with a countersuit, demanding payment of the rest of the monies owed to them.

Right now 130 mock trial teams from 70 schools across Minnesota are grappling with this fictional factual scenario. The teams span the entire state, from Bemidji to Luverne and from Chisholm to Winona.

The MSBA Mock Trial Program, like all other MSBA programming, was forced to pivot in the wake of covid-19. The easy choice, of course, would have been to shelve mock trial for a year. Instead, MSBA Mock Trial Director Kim Basting, undaunted by the challenge, worked with the Mock Trial Advisory Committee chaired by Wynne Reece to revise the program to allow it to go on despite the restrictions. 

This year, the entire mock trial program will be conducted on a virtual platform. The teams and judges will attend the trials from separate locations. The format of the trials will remain essentially the same: Each team will have at least six student members serving in the roles of attorneys, witnesses, and bailiffs/timekeepers. A pretrial conference will be conducted at the start of each trial, followed by opening statements, direct and cross examinations of witnesses, and closing arguments. The attorneys will make objections and abide by the rules of evidence of the mock trial program as they present their cases. 

As always, MSBA members will serve as judges in the trials and score the teams’ performances. The best teams from each region will have the chance to represent their region and school in the state tournament in March. The team that rises to the top in the state tournament will have the honor of representing Minnesota in the national (and likewise virtual) mock trial tournament in May. 

At a time when so many students are unable to participate in extra-curricular activities because of covid-19 and social distancing restrictions, the decision to continue the mock trial program is even more important. Doing so helps to create some sense of normalcy in an otherwise tumultuous and unpredictable time. 

And while a virtual format will certainly be different from a typical courtroom experience, conducting the program virtually may actually be an improvement in some respects. This year, at least, Minnesota’s winter will not require trials to be rescheduled or postponed because a team from Fergus Falls is unable to travel to St. Cloud for a competition. It’s also great that more MSBA members will have the opportunity to volunteer as judges, since they will have the flexibility to do so from the comfort of their homes or offices.

The change made to this year’s mock trial program is a shining example of how to cultivate something good from an otherwise bad situation, a lesson we should all take to heart. The show will go on! 

If you are interested in volunteering to serve as a mock trial judge, please visit the MSBA Mock Trial Program page (www.mnbar.org/mocktrial) or contact Kim Basting, MSBA’s mock trial director (612-278-6306;  kbasting@mnbars.org).

Dyan Ebert is a partner at the central Minnesota firm of Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A., where she served as CEO from 2003-2010 and 2014-2019. She also served on the board of directors of Minnesota CLE from 2012-2019. 
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