It was not traffic tickets or any kind of trouble with the law that brought dozens of high school students to court in Rolling Meadows on the afternoon of Thursday, Feb. 21.
Instead, dressed in appropriate courtroom attire, they were there to argue the case of People v. Norton, while competing in the 17th annual Northwest Suburban Bar Association's Mock Trial Invitational.
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Cook County judges stayed late that Thursday to preside over the event, and more than 40 attorneys from the NWSBA evaluated the defense and prosecution teams and otherwise assisted the young people, from 24 high schools from throughout the state.
The St. Charles North High School team took top honors. Timothy Christian High School in Elmhurst, a perennial top-finishing team, came in second and Chicago Christian High School came in third.
Jaime Santana of Guerin College Preparatory High School in River Grove was judged the "Outstanding Attorney." Josh Bootsma of Timothy Christian and Julia Spathis of Highland Park High School tied for "Outstanding Witness." Bootsma, a junior, also won "Outstanding Witness" last year.
The wins mean more than added momentum headed into the state competition, to be held March 2-3 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. As has been the case for the past three years, each member of the top three teams also received tuition waivers to John Marshall Law School in Chicago, which co-sponsored the event.
Members of the No. 1 St. Charles North team each received waivers valued at $5,000 each. Timothy Christian members earned waivers of $3,000 and members of third-place Chicago Christian's team won waivers worth $2,000.
This year's case was People v. Norton, a criminal case involving allegedly stolen photographs of Abraham Lincoln.
The Northwest Suburban Bar Association's competition was moved from its traditional Saturday morning spot to a weekday afternoon-evening, because of the closures of suburban Cook County courthouses on Saturdays.
"We wanted to keep the real-life setting of the courthouse," explained Jay Andrew, co-chair with Richard Karwaczka of the Mock Trial Committee. "We believe high school students get a lot out of not only preparing for and participating in the competition but also participating in the courthouse environment itself, with actual judges hearing the cases and providing guidance."
That real-life setting is a plus, said Scott Roelofs, longtime coach of the Timothy Christian team. "This is a great tournament," he said of the NWSBA Invitational. "Sometimes the organizers (of other mock trial competitions) will have lawyers be the judges. But when you have the judge, and it's actually his courtroom, that's neat. It always makes it kind of special."
Timothy Christian is a traditional powerhouse in Mock Trial. The team took second in the state the previous two years, after coming in first in the NWSBA contest those same years.
Roelofs finds much of value in the preparation for, and competition in, Mock Trial. "Mock Trial is wonderful for critical thinking skills," he said. "It's not like a play, where your lines are written for you.
"First of all, you have to be able to create and analyze arguments. And the most difficult thing is you have to be able to think on your feet. The kids don't know what the other side is going to say or the questions they'll ask. You have to adjust on the fly.
"There's a lot of pressure. You're standing in front of a courtroom full of people. You have to have students willing to speak in front of people and get put on the spot."
Many of his past team members have indeed gone on to law school. "I'm sure some definitely would not have done so," had it not been for the Mock Trial experience, he said.
But Mock Trial has benefits for all, he said. "It's really excellent preparation for any line of work."
To accommodate news coverage of the event, Judge William O. Maki, presiding judge in the Third Municipal District and Timothy C. Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, permitted cameras in the courtrooms.
The Invitational was made possible in part with a grant from the Illinois State Bar Association. The 17th annual competition was sponsored by the Northwest Suburban Bar Association Foundation, with volunteers from the NWSBA. Other sponsors included the law offices of Drost, Gilbert, Andrew & Apicella, LLC and the Law Offices of Serio & Karwaczka, LLP.
A reception for all mock trial volunteers was held at Jimmy D's District immediately following the competition.
This year's state competition was hosted by the University of Illinois, with assistance from the Illinois State Bar Association.