November 2011 - Celebrating Thirty Years of CRF--OC
by Karen Walter
Nineteen-hundred-eighty-one (1981) was an eventful year. The Iranian hostage crisis ended, gunmen shot both President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, Sandra Day O’Connor took her seat as the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Prince Charles married Lady Diana, Greece became a member of the European Economic Community, and Hosni Mubarak became the President of Egypt.
Nineteen-hundred-eighty-one was also the year when the Constitutional Rights Foundation of Orange County (CRF–OC) began providing law-related, educational programs for local youth. For 30 years, CRF–OC has operated as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to teaching Orange County high school students about the American system of justice. CRF–OC’s unique programs take students outside of the traditional classroom setting and challenge those students to confront complex, real-world issues under the guidance of leaders from the legal and business communities. CRF–OC’s programs are provided at minimal cost to Orange County high schools and are run almost entirely by volunteers. CRF–OC’s programs include: 1) Mock Trial, 2) Peer Court, 3) Constitution Day, 4) Law Day, and 5) the Career Forum.
Teams from local high schools present the prosecution or defense of a “mock” criminal case against each other in a tournament-style competition. Each team is coached by volunteer teachers and attorneys. At the Orange County Superior Courthouse, student team members enact every role in the trial, while volunteer scoring attorneys and judges evaluate their performances. In addition to presenting their cases, students also have the opportunity to compete in courtroom art and journalism contests. The annual mock trial program concludes with an awards luncheon to recognize outstanding student and team achievements. In 2010, nearly 800 students from 33 high schools participated in mock trial. The Orange County champion team from El Dorado High School in Placentia also participated in the statewide mock trial tournament.
CRF–OC partners with the Orange County Probation Department, Superior Court, and local high schools to offer a diversion program for nonviolent, juvenile offenders. Volunteer judges convene real court sessions in the gymnasiums of local high schools so that students can view the proceedings and serve as jurors by making sentencing recommendations. Hundreds of minors appear before Peer Court juries every year as an alternative to entering the juvenile justice system. Not only does the program relieve caseloads in juvenile court, but also it provides a low-cost alternative (80% less expensive, per person, than formal probation) that has proven effective in decreasing recidivism rates. A recent probation study indicated that 75% of the juveniles convicted in Peer Court successfully completed their sanctions, and of those, 96% had not re-offended within one year. Student audience members who do not serve on the jury also benefit from the program; they see firsthand the serious consequences of crime and receive a seven-lesson curriculum designed to teach them about the justice system and responsible decision-making.
CRF-OC’s Constitution Day Conference was added in response to the U.S. Department of Education’s mandate that all schools accepting federal aid celebrate Constitution Day (September 17th) with educational programming to improve students’ understanding of the role that the U.S. Constitution plays in our country. This one-day conference consists of a number of workshops about the three branches of government and how the Constitution creates interplay between them to provide checks and balances on governmental power. Constitution Day typically concludes with a mock Supreme Court hearing. The Supreme Court “justices” include both sitting judicial officers and students who listen to arguments from accomplished attorneys and render a ruling. The theme for the 2010 Constitution Day was “Free Speech, Privacy and the Internet: FR33DOM TO LOL.” The theme for 2011’s Constitution Day was “Defending Unpopular Causes.”
Hundreds of high school students attend this one-day conference at Whittier Law School. The conference brings students, judges, attorneys, and teachers together to share opinions on constitutional issues relevant to young people. The workshops are thought-provoking and lively and often include students presenting the “pro” and “con” sides of an issue. Participants are challenged to consider and debate their rights and responsibilities as citizens. Past workshop topics have included regulating school dances, controlling campus violence, testing students for illegal drug use, and trying minors as adults.
Held in partnership with the Orange County Department of Education, this conference links high school students directly with the world of business. Each year, about 1,100 students attend a one-day conference consisting of various workshops presented by local business leaders on such topics as entrepreneurship, business technology, internships, and preparing for a successful job interview. Based on their own interests, students can choose workshops presented by many different kinds of professionals, including software engineers, chefs, pilots, surf wear designers, law enforcement officers, publishers, bankers and, of course, lawyers. Past keynote speakers have included RoadTrip Nation, an organization that encourages youth to define their own roads in life, and Blizzard Entertainment, one of the world’s most popular and well-respected makers of computer games.
Looking back after 30 years at 1981’s momentous events, we can see that some had disastrous outcomes. Not so with CRF–OC. CRF–OC’s legacy after 30 years is an impressive group of program alumni who, having been transformed by their high school experiences, remain committed to advancing the work and values of CRF–OC.
Notable alumni of CRF–OC’s mock trial program (some of whom are pictured on the cover) include the 2008 OCBA President Cathrine Castaldi, the 2011 CRF–OC President Karen Walter, and former Public Law Center board member Nhan Vu. Local attorneys who are mock trial alumni and continue to volunteer for CRF–OC include Jeanne McKee, Lindsey Campbell, Todd Litfin, and Robert Beggs. Orange County now even has a judge—The Honorable Nick Dourbetas—who competed in CRF–OC’s mock trial program while in high school.
CRF–OC’s programs are not just about encouraging students to consider a career in law. The 2010 mock trial awards luncheon featured as keynote speakers two doctors and a UCLA law professor, all three of whom are program alumnae. A 2012 Orange County Teacher of the Year, Sunshine Cavalluzzi, is both a past mock trial participant and a past honoree as an outstanding teacher coach. Orange County companies and CRF–OC supporters such as Pacific Life and Oakley also count former mock trial students among their executives.
Some of our program alumni express their appreciation for CRF–OC by volunteering as summer interns, conference speakers, and mock trial coaches. Others tell us about their appreciation directly by completing surveys or reflection exercises. A recent defendant who appeared before a Peer Court jury told us, “Peer Court helped me learn from my mistakes . . . and helped me get back on track. I don’t want to make a bad choice again.” A student who attended the Career Forum explained its impact on his life saying, “I learned a lot about the different careers available to me after high school. I now know I should finish high school and go to college so that I can do something big in my life.”
Why are CRF–OC’s programs so effective at changing the lives of students? Because CRF–OC’s programs teach, through hands-on experience, the values critical to responsible citizenship and connect students with volunteers who share those values. These values and relationships inspire students to challenge themselves and work for positive changes. CRF-OC alumni constantly tell us how their participation helped them to grow in all of the following areas:
- Critical thinking. When overwhelming amounts of information are available at the click of a mouse, it is tempting to accept media sound bites, summaries, and simplifications when making judgments about important issues. Students preparing a closing argument for mock trial or preparing a debate for Law Day, however, learn they must think through complexities and consider both sides of the story before drawing conclusions. These students quickly realize that they cannot persuasively support their position if they do not understand the opposing position and the strengths and weaknesses of both.
- Fairness. Peer court juries, mock trial team members, and students at Constitution Day listening to talks about “defending unpopular causes” all see firsthand that law is not about gamesmanship. They see that the justice system decides the fate of real people every day, and they understand that the system’s ability to reach a fair result is important to every American, including them.
- Honesty. While movies and popular culture often portray lawyers as dishonest, CRF–OC students quickly learn that law is not a career in which the dishonest can find long-term success. Advocates need to be credible. Advocates who play “fast and loose” with the truth are not persuasive. It just takes one experience in which a mock trial witness tries to change the facts but then gets skewered on cross-examination for that student to appreciate the importance of honesty both to maintaining personal credibility and to the proper functioning of the justice system.
- Respect for the rule of law. CRF–OC’s students interact with volunteer judges and see that the role of judicial officers is to apply the law to the facts. Understanding the difference between the function of legislators and judges is especially important as the independence of the judiciary is increasingly under attack. While many Americans may not understand how a judge, by ruling that a law is unconstitutional, can invalidate a law enacted by elected officials or even a popular referendum, CRF–OC students learn about this.
- Respect for constitutional rights. CRF–OC’s programs confront students with questions like: Why is the defendant’s right to cross-examine prosecution witnesses so important? Why should a trial be based only on admissible evidence? Mock trial students see firsthand that trials would have very different results if these rights did not exist. While the media may frequently report that a defendant was acquitted because of a “technicality,” both lawyers and CRF–OC students know that the constitutionally-guaranteed rights of the accused are not mere technicalities.
- Confidence. Teaching students how to change the world does not do anyone any good if those students lack the confidence to try. By teaching students how to think on their feet and communicate their positions with poise and persuasiveness, CRF–OC gives students confidence to tackle other challenges.
- Diversity. The students who participate in CRF–OC’s programs come from all over Orange County. Looking at our conference attendees or the mock trial award winners each year, dozens of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds are represented. For many students, interacting with their mock trial attorney coach is their first opportunity to meet a lawyer. Lawyers interested in expanding the “pipeline” of minority students who attend law school should definitely support high school mock trial. CRF–OC’s programs engage a student group that mirrors the entire County: 47% Latino, 14% Asian/Pacific Islander, 1.6% African American, 1.8% Filipino, 0.5% Native American, 32% White, and 3.1% other students of color. In 2011, about 47% of the students who attended CRF–OC’s Career Forum were Latino, accurately reflecting the diversity within Orange County’s public schools. The Career Forum is a unique opportunity for potentially first-generation college students to receive encouragement from a wide array of business professionals.
- Volunteerism: CRF–OC would not exist but for generous volunteers willing to give their time, expertise, and financial resources. Student participants see this. They understand that once they are out of school and working, they, too, should find nonprofit work they believe is important and support it with their time.
Even after 30 years, these values remain at the core of responsible citizenship. By teaching these values, CRF–OC helps program participants be better at whatever career they choose, as well as better voters, jurors, citizens, and leaders. If you share the values of CRF–OC, there are numerous ways that you can support our work. . . .
- Come. Attend one of our conferences or watch a mock trial round at the courthouse (it’s free!). If you have kids who wonder what you do when you are in court, bring them along. When you see our programs in action, you will understand how CRF-OC has thrived and grown over the last 30 years.
- Volunteer. We always need volunteer scorers at mock trial, Peer Court jury advisors, and conference speakers. You can sign up via our website at www.crf-oc.org.
- Sponsor. CRF–OC offers many sponsorship opportunities, including sponsorships specific to particular programs, yearly sponsorships and sponsorships of our annual benefit. The 2011 benefit is October 27 at the Center Club in Costa Mesa. Thanks to everyone who sponsored the event, purchased an opportunity drawing ticket, or a silent auction item. With the help of CRF–OC’s sponsors, CRF can continue to provide amazing opportunities to local youth and involve even more students in its programs.
- Re-Connect. Please visit the CRF–OC Facebook pages for the mock trial program and program alumni. We would love to hear more about how your experiences in CRF–OC’s programs impacted your life.
The Orange County legal community should be very proud of its support of CRF–OC over the last 30 years. Because of its focus on civic values and relationships, the educational mission of CRF–OC is as important today as it ever was. The upcoming generations of Orange County high school students deserve access to these programs for many more decades to come. Thanks for your continued support of CRF–OC.
Karen Walter, of Rutan & Tucker, LLP, is 2011 CRF–OC President.