Students at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, a Teaneck school at the center of a mock trial controversy in 2005, received a real life lesson in the law and ethics last Thursday.
Echoes of the 2005 argument surfaced this year as another Jewish institution, the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., was caught between the commitment to observe the Sabbath, and the scheduling for the prestigious high school legal competition, which was held May 6 to 10 in Atlanta, Ga.
While the dispute centered on scheduling, on a deeper level it dealt with fairness for people of varying religious views, and what it “means to be a Sabbath-observing Jew in the larger society,” Daniel Edelman told the TABC student body.
A Teaneck resident and lawyer working with the Maimonides group, Edelman said, “It’s not only our own interest that needs to be served when we need to speak up about something that’s wrong, it’s about [other people’s interest]. It’s about doing chesed. It’s about recognizing that someone else may suffer the same injustice another time,” said Edelman, a partner in the New York firm of Crowell & Moring.
|Daniel Edelman addresses the TABC student body about the mock trial controversy. Charles Zusman|
In 2005, the TABC mock trial team won the New Jersey state championship, allowing it to go to the National High School Mock Trial Championship finals, that year held in Charlotte, N.C. The problem was that the final bouts of the competition would be held on Friday and Saturday, and the team members would not compete on the Sabbath.
After objections were lodged, notably by Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Dist. 9), the organization that runs the competition, the National Mock Trial Championship, agreed to alter the schedule so the TABC youngsters could begin competition on Thursday.
At the same time, the group voted a policy that it would never again alter the schedule to accommodate a particular team.
The policy was ratified that October, and the New Jersey Bar, which coordinates the state competition, withdrew from the national group. The following January North Carolina also withdrew. The two state bars and others formed their own group, the American Mock Trial Invitational, to serve until the other group changed its policy.
In September of 2007, Congress adopted a resolution – introduced in the House by Rothman – calling on the national group to accommodate students of all faiths to allow them to participate without violating the practices of their religion, but the group stood behind its decision.
And there the issue lay, until this year, when another Jewish institution, the Maimonides School, won its state championship and was eligible for the final. Maimonides asked for the same accommodation as TABC got, to shift some of the trials so the team could observe the Sabbath, but the NMTC refused.
Edelman, a Maimonides alumnus, then joined the effort to help his alma mater, working with a parent of a Maimonides student. “Should we fight this or shouldn’t we,” was the question asked, Edelman said. “Are they going to say we are pushy Jews?”
There was no legal ground for an actual lawsuit, Edelman said, but the group opted to fight, and brought in Alyza and Nathan Lewin, prominent Washington civil rights lawyers, who officially represented a group of Maimonides parents.
The Georgia regional office of the Anti-Defamation League and the Georgia attorney general pressed the group to change the schedule, to no avail. Then the Lewins asked the Justice Department for an investigation. Since courtrooms would be the venue for the competition, the agency notified Georgia court officials that federal funding for the courts would be under scrutiny if students were shut out of the competition.
Time was running out for the competition, and the Maimonides side engaged in some brinksmanship. The Georgia ADL brought pressure, Edelman said. The issue created a huge stir in legal circles. The story made the New York Times.
Maimonides students planned to compete in the opening competition, then refuse to continue, forfeiting the later rounds. They would submit a letter, stating their case. The gist of it, paraphrased by Edelman, would be: “You will not put us in this untenable position. These are our most cherished beliefs. We will not abandon those beliefs or this practice. We worked really hard for this. It’s on your shoulders.”
A resolution came when Georgia Superior Court Chief Judge Doris Downs ruled that the Fulton County Courthouse would be off-limits for the mock trial unless an accommodation were made, and the national group bowed to the ultimatum. The opening trial for the Massachusetts students was moved to Thursday, and it was agreed that the final bout would be moved from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. should the Maimonides team make it that far.
In the end, Maimonides placed 20th out of the 42 competitors, the winning team being from John Adams High School in South Bend, Ind. But while the national group still stands behind its policy, Maimonides made its point, Edelman said.
Speaking to the larger issue, it’s about “when and how to be an activist. Not every situation warrants activisim,” Edelman said.
“We choose to lead our lives as shomer Shabbos, and sometimes it doesn’t make sense to impose our ways on other people, to suggest to other people that they need to make an accommodation,” Edelman said.
He cited the example of a university graduation, where the event is largely ceremonial and changing the schedule would affect many people, as a case not to be challenged. But in the mock trial instance, where the scheduling change was minimal, there was little reason not to shift the trials.
When the situation affects your right to succeed in society, you fight, he said. “We live in a wonderful country that has rights, and a constitution that is meant to be inclusive and accommodating whenever possible,” Edelman said.
“This violated the right that America has granted, that every single activity, every single organization has to respect the religious inclination of each and every one of its citizens,” said TABC Principal Rabbi Yosef Adler in introducing Edelman.
“We have the responsibility and a right and a privilege to stand up for that to which we are entitled,” he continued.
The mock trial is a yearly event. Teams are presented with a “case” to argue, one side the plaintiff, the other the defense. Students play the part of witnesses, and a real judge oversees the trial. There is no jury as such, but a panel of lawyers scores the trial, determining the winner.
The NTMC location switches every year, and next time around it will be in Philadelphia.
In the 2005 competition in Charlotte, N.C., TABC placed 38 out of the 45 teams.
Now competing in the American Mock Trial framework, TABC’s is “one of the best teams in the country,” said its captain, senior Joseph Jarashow. It’s made the Bergen quarter finals, he said.
The competition alternates between civil and criminal cases, and this year the trial involved music downloading. Teams prepare arguments both for the plaintiff and the defense, and then take turns playing both sides.