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St. Paul students try mock trial case

Joseph Gilroy • Jan 21, 2020 at 10:00 AM

As he played the attorney for the defendant, Blake Varga in the 2020 Ohio mock trial case, St. Paul High School senior Ethan Larson said the toughest part was “thinking on my feet.”

The case focuses on First Amendment student speech, specifically, the difference between on-campus and off-campus speech.

Fictional plaintiff Rory Maldonado is suing his former high school and the principal for violating his First Amendment right to free speech. He was suspended from senior week activities and banned from walking at graduation due to his involvement with and planning a demonstration for gun rights. Maldonado claims this was a violation of his rights because the event took place off-campus.

“It’s kind of hard because in the case it seems there is a lot of stuff that just doesn’t make any sense and you just have to kind of pick out the important parts to use,” Larson said. “When you get an objection you have to make it up on the fly and you have to try to come up with the best thing to say that will help you at the time.”

St. Paul sent two teams Friday to the district mock trials at the Huron County Courthouse. Edison, Perkins and Sandusky St. Mary’s also sent teams to the contest. 

Senior Jarrett Schaffer, a three-year St. Paul veteran, won last year’s outstanding attorney award. This year he earned an outstanding witness award for his role as a cafeteria worker.

“I got involved because when I was younger I thought I wanted to go to law school. ... I think I still might and I have always liked to argue,” Schaffer said. “(The key is) having a filter and not saying everything that pops into my mind. It really helps you think outside the box. I like thinking outside the box and you don’t really get to do that a lot in school; it’s cool.”

The cases are judged by a panel of three local attorneys. They take into consideration the performance of all the students, their knowledge of the case, the legal aspects and how they present their case.

“Some of the challenges are that you don’t know what they are going to object to and what you are going to have to add or take out,” St. Paul senior Nathaniel Tokarsky said. “Having done this in the past few years really helped me personally because I had a better idea how things worked in court.”

St. Paul’s team of Larson, Schaffer, Tokarsky and Ryan Walker competed with a team from Perkins in the first round. It’s the third year for all the members except Walker, who is competing for the first time.

“I thought it was really cool to see something similar to how a trial works and this was my first year doing it, so it was a good learning experience,” Walker said. “I can get pretty nervous and (not) remember what the order of events were, … forgetting the small parts and never knowing what they are going to ask were all challenging. The fun part was being in the story of it and feeling like you were actually that person.”

Mock trial judge T. Douglas Clifford said he was pleased with the performance of all the attorneys and witnesses.

“First, I want to say that all of you did a great job today,” the defense attorney said. “All of the witnesses were prepared and did a nice job of answering the questions and keeping their stories straight and I would be happy if every one of my real witnesses did as well as you all did. The attorneys did a nice job too. ... You handled your crosses well and did a nice job with objecting at times. Picking (the winners) was not an easy task.”

More than 3,000 Ohio high school students entered courtrooms across the state Friday to take part in the 37th annual Ohio Center for Law-Related Education mock trial competition.

Each team consists of five to 11 students who assume the roles of witnesses and attorneys to present both sides of an original, unscripted case based on a constitutional issue. Each team competes in two trials against opposing teams. More than 1,000 legal professionals serve as volunteer judges, competition coordinators and team advisers. The Ohio mock trial is the state’s largest high school academic competition and among the largest high school mock trial programs in the nation.

One of the Perkins teams advanced to the regional finals Feb. 7.