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Powers of persuasion

Student mock trial society advances to national tournament

It is said that Daniel Webster moved the U.S. Supreme Court justices to tears with his argument on behalf of Dartmouth's autonomy almost two centuries ago. Firmly rooted in fact, argued with impeccable logic and expressed with great emotion, his legendary plea to preserve the College's charter free from government interference resulted in a victory for Dartmouth and a history-making decision that has become a fundamental principle of U.S. constitutional law. Webster's legacy lives on through the Dartmouth Mock Trial Society (DMTS), a student-run organization funded by the Council on Student Organizations (COSO). Recently returned from victories of their own, DMTS members combine skills in extemporaneous speaking, knowledge of the law, and acting when presenting their cases.

David Rhinesmith '05 and Sean Miller '05
David Rhinesmith '05 and Sean Miller '05 stand in front of Robert Burns' 1962 painting of Daniel Webster 1801 arguing Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, otherwise known as The Dartmouth College Case, before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1817. The painting, commissioned by Col. Henry Nelson Teague 1900, hangs in Thayer Dining Hall. Teague, an admirer of Webster, owned and operated the Mt. Washington Cog Railway. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Dartmouth teams brought home top honors in the first of two regional tournaments this year, and one group qualified to compete at the upcoming National Intercollegiate Mock Trial Tournament, the first of two national tournaments. Jennifer Fisher '08 won an individual award for Outstanding Witness. The Jan. 28-29 Manchester Community College Regional Tournament in Manchester, Conn., known for its overall level of difficulty, this year hosted teams from schools with traditionally competitive mock trial societies, including Yale, Manchester Community College, Boston University and Brown.

Mock trial societies are not uncommon in higher education but DMTS claims some unusual distinctions. "We are one of the few schools in the country where the team is entirely student led and directed," said David Rhinesmith '05, President of DMTS. "Students do everything-from organizing trips and tournaments, to teaching newcomers about the rules of evidence, to deciding on team structures and competing in up to four tournaments a year."

In mock trial competitions, participants prepare in the roles of attorneys and witnesses based upon a nationwide fact pattern provided each year by theAmerican Mock Trial Association. Students then try their cases against teams from other colleges and universities by competing in regional and national tournaments. Rounds are judged by practicing attorneys or judges, and competitors are scored on the professionalism and effectiveness of the cases they present. The top teams from each of the two regional tournaments are given bids to the National Intercollegiate Tournament and the National Championship Tournament, respectively.

Dartmouth's first year of competition (1996) resulted in a bid to the National Championship Tournament. Since 2001, the College has sent two teams annually-the maximum allowed-to the national tournaments and improved its performance at the national competitions each year.

"The Mock Trial Society works extremely hard and has tremendous talent. They learn a great deal and have fun in the process of bringing glory to Dartmouth with regular success on the national level," said Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Philosophy and faculty adviser to DMTS.

Though DMTS is student led, it receives guidance and support from College faculty, administration and area alumni, who critique the teams' presentations and provide feedback. In addition to Sinnott-Armstrong, Dartmouth General Counsel Robert Donin, Weyman Lundquist '52, Senior Fellow, Dickey Center for International Understanding and Carey Heckman '76, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, among others have judged practice trials for DMTS.

Donin attributes the continued success of DMTS teams to strong analytical ability, a solid understanding of court procedures and acting skill in performing the various roles of lawyers and witnesses. "These students are remarkably poised and mature," he said. "Their skill at examining witnesses, applying the rules of evidence, and operating in the courtroom setting is impressive."

Lundquist, a founder of the trial lawyers section of the American Bar Association, has many years of experience trying cases before juries and has written and taught extensively on trial advocacy. "A strength of the Dartmouth Mock Trial Society is that it calls for the trial team to recognize the trial of cases as theater in search of truth. Dartmouth students have little trouble casting themselves in such roles. Indeed, they have a natural bent for it," he said.

Two DMTS teams will compete Feb. 25-27 at the Worcester, Mass., Regional Tournament, vying for bids to the National Championship Tournament.

By AUDREY BROWN

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Last Updated: 12/17/08