March 12, 2001

Cornell Mock Trial

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This April, members of the Cornell Mock Trial Association will be disappearing into thin air.

Well, not literally.

The organization is headed for the national championships in Des Moines, Iowa, and the debate will be loosely based upon John Krakauer’s 1997 novel, Into Thin Air.

Led by its president, Keith Becker ’01, the team will be arguing both sides of the fictitious legal dispute during the American Mock Trial Association National Championship at Drake University.

The case involves an expert mountain climber who dies attempting to summit Mount Everest. The climber’s widow then sues the guides who accompanied her husband on the ill-fated trip.

Members of the mock trial team will be divided into two teams of six — three lawyers and three witnesses — and both will argue the case for the plaintiff and the defendant.

“It breaks down like a real trial,” said Becker. “We are scored by lawyers and law students based on our legal knowledge as well as the credibility of our overall performance. There’s a lot of acting involved.”

The national championship is the final event in the three-level competition that began at the Yale Invitational Mock Trial Tournament in November. There, the Cornell team received tenth place out of 40 competing teams. Two members, Becker and Bethanie Ricketts ’02 received individual overall honors in the competition.

In February, the team moved on to the regional competition at the University of Rochester, where they were one of four teams chosen from 25 competitors to qualify for the weekend-long national contest in Des Moines.

This will be the fourth consecutive year that Cornell’s team has qualified for the national tournament, where they will contend with the top 64 teams in the nation. Among the teams present will be Ivy-League rivals from Yale and Columbia universities.

“The atmosphere [at the national competition] is highly competitive,” said Jonathan Scharf ’02. “Part of the trial takes place in a real courthouse, which definitely raises the level of seriousness. Our goal is to have fun, but everyone takes it pretty seriously.”

Scharf is one member of what Becker describes as “a really eclectic bunch of very ambitious, very intelligent people.”

Becker himself has been president of the organization for the past three years.

“[The Mock Trial Association] is an amazing activity that forces you to think critically on your feet, one of the most vital skills for a trial lawyer,” Becker said.

Other members of the team offered positive remarks.

“I have been particularly impressed with this year’s team,” said Nadia Drake ’02, who has been a member since her freshman year. “Everyone is exceptionally intelligent and we are all good friends. It’s a lot of fun.”

The organization has approximately 40 members from five of Cornell’s undergraduate colleges and is “nationally recognized as one of the best teams in the northeast,” Becker said.

The team’s success has been acknowledged through monetary support from various organizations within Cornell and elsewhere.

This year, the Student Activities Funding Commission (SAFC) increased the team’s funding from last year’s budget of $3,833 to $5,767.

“We [the SAFC] want to support groups that are successful in their endeavors and are actively bringing Cornell’s name elsewhere,” said Kira Moriah ’03, vice president of finance for the SAFC.

This allocation is in the “upper-middle range” of subsidization in comparison to other student groups funded by the SAFC, according to Moriah. “[The Mock Trial Association] has demonstrated an active membership and responsible use of their funding in the past.”

Mock Trial must currently raise between $4,000 and $8,000 to cover transportation costs to an from the national championships.

In addition to the SAFC, the team also receives significant funding from Littler- Mendelson, a private law firm in San Francisco, which employs several alumni from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the Law School.

“We have a difficult time publicizing the club’s success,” Becker said. “But those who have supported us recognized that we are advancing — a trend that I hope will increase in the future as we continue to be successful as an organization.”

Archived article by Hillary Profita