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Friday, May 24, 2013

The Show-Me Challenge Voir Dire and Opening Statement Competition: A Coach's Report

A.J. Bellido de Luna coaches trial teams at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, where he is also the managing director of clinics. His team made it to the final round of the inaugural Show-Me Challenge Voir Dire and Opening Statement Competition, hosted by the University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Law.

Here is AJ's account of the competition.

The Inaugural National Voir Dire Invitational Show Me Challenge, hosted by the University of Missouri Kansas City took place the weekend of April 12. UMKC’s Director of Advocacy, Rafe Foreman and his army of volunteers made sure that this first time competition was going to be a first class event. From all of the comments I heard throughout the tournament, they exceeded all expectations.

The tournament itself was the largest unknown. It all started at the Educating Advocates Conference last summer. (Here is a plug for everyone to go this year because great ideas come out of EATS – for more info visit http://www.law.stetson.edu/conferences/eats/). During a break out session where ideas were being shared, Rafe was talking to directors and coaches from all over the country with an idea of trying to bring back voir dire as an art that needs to be taught at law schools and believed it can start with a competition. A lot of egging on and an idea turned into a reality. To my knowledge, this is a one of a kind competition. After some last minute cancellations, there were twelve teams from nine schools competing at the event; Baylor, Creighton, Drake (2), Maryland, Mississippi College of Law, South Texas, Southern Illinois(2), Texas Tech and Washburn (2) sent three member teams.

For our team, this was really unchartered territory. Voir dire in Maryland is done by the court, never by the attorneys. While judges do permit follow up questions, almost all of the questioning comes from the bench. This was the first hurdle for our team and after talking to other coaches at the competition, this was the same hurdle everyone faced. Finding information on voir dire was equally difficult. There is very little literature on the subject matter and the few videos that are available show many more methods you should not do, than should. It seemed as though most teams took the same approach of finding someone with some expertise, getting as much information you could from the source, and then adapt to your team’s style. This meant that most teams were expecting other teams to be nothing like their team, and we were not disappointed in that belief.

My team arrived Wednesday evening. After a day of travel, there were only two things to do: check into the hotel and get something to eat. The host hotel was the Hotel Raphael, A Marriott, Autograph Collection hotel. Every room was a suite with a small living room separate from the bedroom, for plenty of work space and for less than half the price we usually pay. Not all of the teams stayed at the Raphael, but they should have. While we were checking in, I contacted Rafe for dinner recommendations. We went to a famous, hole in the wall, Kansas City BBQ joint called Arthur Bryant’s (http://www.arthurbryantsbbq.com/index.htm), and it did not disappoint. It was three blocks away from the National Negro Leagues Baseball Hall of Fame on the eve of the premier of the movie 42. The town was buzzing and worth a second visit.    

The coaches’ meeting was Thursday night and was as cordial a meeting as you would expect. I think I may have set a record for the number of pages of notes I took at the meeting. Rafe and his Assistant Director Michelle did a great job explaining the format, the events and how the competition would be judged. Rafe also laid down the law on time. He had over 500 volunteers lined up for the tournament and he was hell bent on holding everyone accountable to time. The buses were leaving the hotel at 7:30am and you needed to be on it. Trials started at 9, 12:30 and 3 and he would not let them start late. Every facet of the trial was subject to strict time limits, including comments (great tactic here: the bailiffs actually timed comments and gave the judges a countdown if they needed it).  After the coach’s meeting, Rafe took a page from the South Texas Challenge playbook and treated all of the teams and his prime volunteers to a nice Italian dinner at a local restaurant. To start the dinner, we were greeted by the Kansas City Mayor who recorded a welcome and thanked us for going to Kansas City. It was a nice way for teams to introduce themselves to one another and share some cheer before the rounds. 

As promised, the bus left at 7:32. This was two minutes later than Rafe’s announced time, and Rafe was fuming we were running late. Rafe and his team secured the Federal Courthouse, but this was also a day when 700 people were being sworn in as citizens. To say that the courthouse was at peak capacity was an understatement and getting the teams, judges and panels through security on time was a major challenge.

Our first round started a few minutes late, with all but one round with 11 jurors, a 12th juror was a volunteer attorney and a presiding judge. Rafe made sure that all of the attorneys on the panel or presiding, were attorneys that practiced voir dire.

As for the teams themselves, the competition rules ensured that no team could present a one-man show. There were three advocates on every team, with each advocate switching roles after every round so that each member was judged at least once in each facet of the competition. The first advocate conducted a half hour voir dire of the panel. The second advocate took notes and then argued the causal and peremptory challenges. The jury panel was then reduced to five citizens and one lawyer. The 3rd advocate then conducted an opening statement to the chosen jury panel.

There was a total of 15 ballots for each round, guaranteeing there could not be any ties. The jury panel each had two votes for the best voir dire and the best opening. The judge had two ballots for the same areas, plus an additional ballot for best 2nd chair. After the jury was selected, the judge read the notes from the second chair to help decide which side won. The voting in this competition was very unique. Each ballot had a purpose and a single vote. For example, for the voir dire, the ballot listed the two competitors by number and then listed who won. All of the ballots went the same way.

The preliminary rounds started within ten minutes either side of the stated start time. All of the jurors played themselves, which added a special twist to the competition.

Our case was a real life story about a woman who was claiming sexual harassment and retaliation in the work place. The jury panel consisted of victims of sexual harassment or assault, or family members or friends that knew of people that were victims. It also had people that were accused of sexual harassment, or business owners or managers that had to fight allegations of the same. This twist forced our advocates to be sensitive with the issues, while still needing to pick the jury. Throughout the preliminary rounds, the comments between team members were the same. Everyone they faced was different from everyone else. The styles varied greatly from very casual to very straightforward. The funny thing is that everyone was certain the rounds were very close.    

After the rounds, Rafe sent us to a dueling piano bar where we were treated to some Oklahoma Joes BBQ and a chance to let loose a little. The party continued well after the four semi-finalists were announced. Creighton was chosen to face off against Texas Tech and Maryland was set to face S. Texas College of Law. The semi-final round had a twist from the preliminary rounds. In this round, a team could bring back a panelist to rehabilitate during the for cause arguments. After the 1st round, Maryland was set to face off against Texas Tech. All of the rounds were conducted with the best sportsmanship and great advocacy from all of the teams.

Saturday afternoon, UMKC hosted a reception for the awards ceremony and naming the inaugural champions. We were greeted by Dean Ellen Suni, who thanked everyone for a great competition and presented each award. The awards for the event were some of the nicest I have ever seen at a competition and they all had a special meaning. For individual awards, Baylor won the Most Professional Team award, Texas Tech won Best Voir Dire, Mississippi won Best Opening and Maryland won Best 2nd Chair and Best Overall Advocate. Each semi-finalist received an award and then Texas Tech was crowned the Tournament Champions on an 8 to 7 final round.    

There are some really great competitions out there that make me want to go back to on a regular basis. In just its first year, the Show Me Challenge has joined ranks with those other competitions. Wonderful hospitality; fantastic advocates in a one of a kind competition and a great venue. I hope we are invited back and I encourage other schools to experience this competition.

Lastly, I want to thank Rafe, Michelle, Dean Suni and all of the many moving parts at UMKC for rolling out the red carpet the way they did. They are a class act and have shown how to run a competition the right way. Thank you for everything.

--AJ Bellido de Luna
University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

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