Will Jewish team be kept out of mock trial championship?

Georgia could get a black eye this week when 500 high school students from around the country come to Atlanta to compete in the National High School Mock Trial Championship.

The competition, being held between May 7 and May 9, is being hosted by the Georgia Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division. But controversy is brewing because of an unwillingness to accommodate the request from an Orthodox Jewish school from Brookline, Ma. to not compete on the Sabbath.

So far, the Mock Trial organization has refused to work with the needs of the Massachusetts state champion, the Maimonides School, by moving only two of the 150 trials from Saturday to Friday. The students of Maimonides, an Orthodox Jewish School, observe the Sabbath on Satruday.

A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, sent me an email about the controversy that he had received from Jewish leaders.

Media packets are going out with the following headline: FREEDOM OF RELIGION ON TRIAL IN ATLANTA: Jewish students are fighting for their day in court.

This is not the first time that the Mock Trial association has faced a similar situation, according to information in Robinson’s email.

In 2005, when the championship was being hosted in North Carolina, the New Jersey state champion asked for a similar accommodation. The Torah Academy of Bergen County did get its request, but the National High Schol Mock Trial Championship was furious and resolved to never accommodate Saturday Sabbath observers.

On May 5, 2005, before the first day of the North Caroline event, the organization adopted that resolution.

Now the Attorney General of Georgia is concerned about the current decision of the organization, and the attorney general’s office has asked that the Georgia Bar and the championship accommodate the Maimonides students.

The Anti Defamation League is expected to get involved. Plus, the students are being represented by two prominent Civil Rights attorneys from Washington D.C. — Nathan and Alyza Lewin.

For more information on this case, you can link to an article about the controversy from the Cutting Edge News; or you can watch a youtube piece.

It would seem that in the international home of Civil Rights and the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., we could be more sensitive to the traditional religious restrictions of those who come to town.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

12 replies
  1. Fairness says:

    This op ed appeared in the Fulton County Daily Report.

    High school legal competition unfairly excludes Jewish team

    Deborah M. Lauter
    The folks who run the National High School Mock Trial Championship (NHSMTC) – hosted this year by the Georgia Bar – have decided that their rigid schedule is much more important than ensuring that kids of all religions can compete in their program. Their intransigence is baffling, mean-spirited, unfair and potentially unlawful.

    The facts are fairly straightforward: the prestigious National High School Mock Trial Championship starts out with state competitions, held in court houses under the auspices of state bars. One state bar then plays host to all of the state winners, affording them an opportunity to compete for national honors. The national championship, hosted this year by the Young Lawyers Division of the Georgia Bar, is scheduled to take place from May 7-9, 2009. Those dates include a Friday night and a Saturday, and pose a problem for the team from a Jewish school that won state honors in Massachusetts this year. According to Jewish law, one may not work or compete on the Sabbath. With the support of the Massachusetts Bar, this school has asked for a slight modification of the competition schedule to allow them to compete without violating the tenets of their faith. Citing the difficulty of changing its schedule, NHSMTC has refused.

    How to resolve such a conflict – scheduling vs. religious accommodation – is a question on which reasonable people can and do disagree. Digging a little deeper, however, the record belies any good faith efforts on NHSMTCH’s part to accommodate Jewish students and resolve this entirely avoidable problem.

    Back in 2005, a team from a Jewish school in New Jersey won their state competition. When NHSMTC denied them an accommodation, that year’s host state bar (North Carolina) insisted on a scheduling accommodation which allowed them to participate. Indeed, in that case over a dozen teams willingly offered to adjust their schedules to allow the team from New Jersey to compete; only two adjustments were necessary. In short, when its hand was forced, the NHSMTC was able to accommodate the needs of religious competitors.

    Despite the fact that the NHSMTC is deeply intertwined with state bars (many have paid coordinators for this competition) and is dependent upon state facilities and employees to run its program, following the 2005 competition the NHSMTC unilaterally voted to refuse to provide religious accommodations in the future. They thus dragged many state bars and public facilities into the uncomfortable position of a sponsoring a program that effectively excludes observant Jews and other Saturday Sabbath observers – a position that is not only misguided, but also potentially unlawful.

    Expressing appropriate indignation at this development, the United States House of Representatives passed a Resolution chastising the NHSMTC, calling on them to “to restructure the rules of the competition to allow qualifying students of all faiths to compete fully in this national championship without betraying their religious beliefs.” (H.Res 110-25).

    Simply put: NHSMTC knew of this issue years ago and, instead of dealing with it responsibly, decided to draw an absolutist line in the sand.

    In drawing that line, NHSMTC ignored its serious legal, pedagogical and moral obligations:

     The competition, given its deep interconnectedness with state entities and facilities, is a public accommodation and thus cannot continue to discriminate on the basis of religion.

     They teach a terrible lesson: fastidious attention to a schedule will trump hard work and a willingness of others to work to accommodate religious needs. It is, as Representative Holt said during the debate on H. Res 110-25, ”…not without irony that this was applied in a competition that is intended for legal and constitutional education.”

     Perhaps most importantly, it is just plain unfair for the NHSMTC to wrap itself in the cloth of both government and the bar – using their facilities and employees – and then refuse to make room for all who demonstrate merit to participate in the competition.

    We do not know why a prestigious organization like the NHSMTC would be willing to risk its reputation when prudence and reason seem to dictate otherwise. However, we can and must act in light of this extraordinary intransigence.

    First, we call on the Georgia Bar, as host committee, to meet the standard set by their North Carolina colleagues and compel NHSMTC to do the fair thing and fully welcome these Jewish students into their competition with the assurance that if they advance, the schedule will be adjusted to accommodate their participation.

    Next, we urge all state bars to insist this competition – this year and in the future – be fully open to religious accommodation – or refuse to give the NHSMTC further credibility by continued participation.

    Students who participate in the National High School Mock Trial Championship learn many lessons about preparation, competition, and the law—an education that will stay with these future leaders throughout their personal and professional lives. By standing up and taking action on this issue, Georgia’s lawyers will also teach those students the vital role that lawyers can play in securing justice and ensuring fair play.

    Deborah M. Lauter is National Director of Civil Rights for the Anti-Defamation League, based in New York. She formerly served as Director of ADL’s Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta.Report

  2. Anonymous says:

    On Friday (May 1) the Department of Justice issued a letter to the Judicial Branch of the State of Georgia in response to the complaint raised by students of Maimonides School that the National High School Mock Trial Championship (NHSMTC) has refused to accommodate the schedule of the national mock trial championship to account for Saturday Sabbath observance. The competition is being held in Atlanta, Georgia between May 7 and 9, 2009 and is hosted by the Young Lawyers’ Division of the Georgia State Bar. The Maimonides’ students had requested that two of the over one hundred fifty trials be held on Thursday or Friday instead of Saturday because of religious reasons. NHSMTC rejected that request, citing a resolution it had adopted in 2005 not to accommodate scheduling changes for Sabbath observers. The trials will be held in Georgia courthouses including at the Fulton County courthouse. The DOJ letter asks the Georgia courts, as recipients of federal funds, to ensure compliance with the Safe Street Acts of 1968, 42 U.S.C. Section 3789(d). Recipients of federal funds may not administer programs that “have the effect of subjecting individuals to discrimination” based on religion pursuant to federal regulation. 28 C.F.R. 42.203(e).Report

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am a mock trial team member about to compete and I completely understand and agree with their decision not to reschedule. Its not about discrimination at all its about unfairness. In the second round in 2005, the New Jersey team should have faced a power-matched opponent, but this was impossible since no other teams had yet competed. The same thing would happen if this team competed on thursday instead of friday. It would give them a completely unfair advantage by possible placing them in a second round against a team that wasn’t seeded. Teams at nationals are put in a winners or losers bracket after each round. This would throw that off and be unfair to teams like mine, especially when mock trial is extremely subjective in its scoring.Report

  4. Anonymous says:

    Anon. 11:56 a.m.: Let me see if I got this right. You are “a mock trial team member about to compete,” which means you are at most 18 years old and yet you know that “[i]n the second round in 2005 [when you were at most 14 years old], the New Jersey team should have faced a power-matched opponent. . . ” Might I ask — where did you get the information about what opponents the New Jersey team faced in 2005.

    As a “mock trial team member about to compete,” you must be a very talented student who may one day become influential perhaps even in the law. I hope and pray you learn to appreciate that our constitution values freedom of religion very much and that accommodations for religion are made all the time. I hope you can see that the rescehduling of two trials out of over 150 so that worthy students can participate in the competition is something that falls within the spirit and meaning of the legal system you are fortunate to be learning about.Report

  5. Anonymous says:

    Response to post number 4:
    First, every mock trial member knows what happens at nationals, basically because it happens year after year, and in almost every state. I too know about what happened in 2005, they were given an unfair advantage by not going against power matched teams. They ended up in 38th place, which means they went 1-3 or 2-2 at most. Had they been power matched like other teams, they might have done better or worse.

    Every student going to Nationals, or with the hope to, knows that they will have to compete on a Friday and a Saturday, it is the way it always is. I would be furious if a team who never got power matched took a top 10 honors( one of the highest accomplishments in mock trial). As a student competing in a few days, I am happy with the NHSMTC’s decision.Report

  6. Anonymous says:

    Anon 4:33: As you state, the only basis for your argument of not allowing for a modification of two trials out of 150, is the the schedule “is the way it always is.” Gee, I wonder where this country would be if we maintained an attitude like that when it came to race and religion. Let’s think:

    There was a time in this country in which there was slavery: “it was the way it always was.” There was a time in this country in which black people were not allowed to vote: “it was the way it always was.” There was a time when black people could not drink from the same water fountains or sit in the same parts of the bus as whites: “it was the way it always was.” There was a time when Jews and black could not live in certain neighborhoods: “it was the way it always was.” There was a time when Jews and blacks could not attend certain universities or get certain jobs: “it was the way it always was.”

    Since you claim to be a high school student who is participating in the mock trial competition, I hope your coach can impress upon you that the values of our constition are a helluva a lot more important than who wins the competition.

    My sense though is you don’t want Maimonides to compete because you are afraid they will whip your pants.Report

  7. Gerald says:

    Hmmm … if this school is allowed to compete, then will Christians be allowed to display Christian symbols i.e. nativity scenes, crosses, etc. on public property again? Will we be allowed to change “spring break” back to “Easter break?” Will Christmas and Easter pageants be allowed to return to public schools?

    Do you want freedom of religious observance and expression? Or do you want to force others to make accommodations for your religion that you are unwilling to make yourself?Report

  8. Anonymous says:

    Gerald, no one is forcing or encoraging others to observer the Jewish Sabbath. All that is being asked is for the national mock trial to move two of over 150 trials from Saturday to Thursday night and/or Friday so that the Massachusetts state champions will not be coerced into forfeiting or else abandoingin their religious principles. Not much to ask for don’t you think!Report

  9. anonymous says:

    No Thats not what your asking for. Your asking for them to recieve an unfair advantage by matching them against a team that hasn’t been seeded. Thats unfair.Report

  10. Anonymous says:

    Knock it off with the unfair advantage baloney. The findings in 2005 were that the accommodation did not affect the competition. In fact, TABC (the recipient of the accommodation) came in 38th that year out of 44 teams. Hard to argue that they were given an unfair advantage. Granted, Maimonides School has very smart students and its likely a lot of schools are scared of it. But put up the toughest competition. Just don’t exclude them because they are religiously proscribed from competting on the seventh day of the week. There once was a time when Jews were could not get jobs in this country because they could not work on God’s Day. Let’s not go back to those barbaric days.Report

  11. Justice says:

    Mock trial team wins merely by competing
    By Eric Fingerhut
    May 12, 2009

    The Maimonides School mock trial team split its four trials in national competition in Atlanta after a battle just to compete. (courtesy Maimondes team) WASHINGTON (JTA) — The record book will say that the Maimonides School finished 20th out of 40 teams at the National High School Mock Trial Championship in Atlanta, winning two trials and losing two.

    But that doesn’t include the team’s huge victory even before last weekend’s competition had started allowing the suburban Boston Jewish day school just to participate.

    After repeatedly rejecting requests to alter the tournament schedule so the Maimonides team would not have to compete on Shabbat, tournament officials were finally forced to relent less than two days before the competition began thanks to a small group of determined activists working 20 hours a day over the past few weeks — as well as a Maimonides team that was prepared to forfeit its chance at a championship rather than compromise its beliefs.

    “You always wonder what’s going to happen if religiousness gets in the way” of something you want to do, said team co-captain Michael Kosowsky, 17. But “we weren’t talking at all about violating Shabbat. We were pretty strong in our principles.”

    “This educates the public,” said fellow co-captain Leah Sarna, 17. “Shabbat is not at all voluntary and not something you can compromise on.”

    The 27-member Maimonides team, of which eight competed last weekend, learned about the Shabbat conflict in early April, not long after it won the Massachusetts state mock trial championship qualifying them for the national event.

    Maimonides hoped that instead of having to compete in the customary two trials on Friday and two trials on Saturday, the mock trial organization would make an exception for the school and move its Saturday trials to Thursday, when all the competitors already are in attendance and practicing at the competition site, or add additional trials for Maimonides on Friday.

    The organization argued that altering the schedule affected the fairness of the competition because matchups in later rounds are determined by the results from earlier rounds. The results, its officials said, cannot be utilized properly if Maimonides is participating in its fourth trial while nearly all the other squads have participated in only two.

    There was precedent for the request: In 2005, the local sponsoring organization for the competition, the North Carolina Trial Lawyers Association, made a similar rescheduling to accommodate a New Jersey Jewish day school, the Torah Academy of Bergen County. Pressured by the lawyers’ group, the mock trial organization acquiesced after initially refusing the request, then passed a resolution saying it would not allow similar accommodations for Sabbath observers in the future.

    As a result of that decision, the New Jersey and North Carolina mock trial groups resigned from the national organization and formed their own group that does not hold competitions on Shabbat.

    So Jeff Kosowsky, Michael’s father, and Daniel Edelman, a Maimonides alumnus who was familiar with the issue because his wife is an English teacher at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, enlisted Washington lawyers Nathan and Alyza Lewin, who specialize in religious discrimination cases.

    Working pro bono, the Lewins got the Justice Department to issue a letter to the administrator of the Georgia courts, warning that entities that receive federal funds cannot administer programs which discriminate on the basis of religion. The competition was scheduled to be held in the Fulton County Courthouse, which receives federal funds.

    The Lewins, Kosowsky and Edelman also tried to convince the local host sponsor, the Georgia Bar Association, to take action, but the assocation said that while it was sympathetic, claimed its contract with the national mock trial organization tied its hands.

    The Maimonides’ backers also alerted the media, with articles appearing on the situation in a major Atlanta legal publication and The New York Times.

    It worked.

    On May 6, after one member of the Georgia Bar had resigned in protest, Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Doris Downs told event organizers that they would not be able to use the Fulton County Courthouse for the competition unless they made accommodations for the Maimonides team. The organizers then decided to schedule a Thursday trial and three Friday trials for the Bostonians.

    Michael Kosowsky said the three trials on Friday were “a little tiring,” but the team was pleased where it finished, considering it was its first trip to the national championship.

    The schedule change was popular among the other teams in Atlanta, as well.

    Michael Kosowsky said that on the day the Maimonides team arrived, a number of competitors noticed their kipot and told them, “We’re really hopeful you get the accommodations.”

    The other teams were “very, very supportive,” Sarna said. “It really meant a lot to us.”

    Both said it made perfect sense that their fellow mock trial competitors would be so interested in their plight.

    “It’s a competition about the legal system,” Sarna said. “They’re the type of people who would care about this.”

    Those involved in the mock trial effort say they hope that the mock trial organization will make a permanent Shabbat accommodation policy, either by changing the days of the week that the tournament is held or, minimally, having a rescheduling option when Sabbath observers — Jewish or Muslim — qualify for the competition.

    The mock trial group doesn’t appear ready to change: On its Web site, the 20th-place finish of Maimonides is accompanied by an asterisk that notes the team’s “deviation from typical team advancement.”Report

  12. Anonymous says:

    Wednesday, May 20, 2009
    Letter: Mock trial ranking system fundamentally flawed
    By Jeff Kosowsky

    Regarding “Letter writer, not mock trial organizers, showed no grace” (May 19): unfortunately, Larry Bakko, the decision support system coordinator for the National High School Mock Trial Championship (NHSMTC), continues to blow a combination of statistical fallacies, lies, and canards to impugn the performance of the Sabbath-observing high school team from Massachusetts rather than graciously conceding a successful accommodation welcomed by the vast majority of students, coaches and observers.

    As a Harvard Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics, I am shocked by Mr. Bakko’s stunning lack of knowledge of elementary statistics. In the following analysis, it is important to note that Massachusetts was one round ahead of the other teams due to the Sabbath accommodation.

    Lets begin with round one. Mr. Bakko claims “They [Massachusetts] faced a limited risk, since many teams were still in flight to Atlanta and were not available to create the same pool of competitors.” As any first year statistics student knows, sampling from a random subset (those who arrived early) is equivalent to sampling from the entire pool since there is no reason to assume that those teams with earlier flights were any better or worse on average than teams with later flights. Hence, the first round assignment was statistically fair.

    Now for round two. Since Massachusetts lost round one, ideally it would have been matched against another team that lost round one. Instead, Massachusetts faced a randomly selected team from the entire pool including 20 teams that went on to win the first round. In fact, the team they played went on to win their first two rounds and ended up ranking higher. Disadvantage Massachusetts.

    Turning to round three. Since by now Massachusetts had lost two rounds, it was appropriate to match with another team that lost the first two rounds. Instead, since Massachusetts was one round ahead, it was matched against a team that had lost only one round. Since half of these first round losing teams go on to win the second round, Massachusetts actually risked being matched with a stronger team than it deserved. Disadvantage Massachusetts.

    Finally, round four. Since the Massachusetts record was now 1-2, the closest match was either a weak 1-1 team or a strong 0-2 team. Instead, Mr. Bakko chose a relatively strong 1-0 team who won all 3 ballots on their first round. Disadvantage Massachusetts.

    The fact that this fourth round team was the Georgia-B team or that it didn’t play all the rounds is a canard. The host state runner-up is only invited to participate (as in this case) when there exists an odd number of teams in a round and has no intrinsic “right” to compete in the tournament. In fact, had Massachusetts not participated, the Georgia-B team would not have not competed at all.

    Finally, given that Georgia had won the national championships for the past two years, it is disingenuous to claim that the runner-up state team is necessarily weaker than other participants.

    The above analysis clearly proves that contrary to Mr. Bakko’s assertions, the first round was statistically fair while the last three rounds if anything statistically disadvantaged Massachusetts.

    Now what about Mr. Bakko’s claim that one of Massachusetts’ wins was against a school that ended up ranking #34 or that Maine, which also ranked #20, played a tougher schedule? Here Mr. Bakko enters into the fallacy of retrospective analysis in a system that prospectively matches teams based on the results of prior rounds.

    Indeed, Mr. Bakko now treads on very dangerous grounds since a retrospective analysis of the complete 2009 Power Matching system reveals intrinsic flaws in the rankings that are far more severe than the purported “anomalies” attributed to Sabbath accommodation. For example:

    – Louisiana ranked #7 yet lost to #18 and then beat #29, #37, and #22. Indeed, two of the three teams it beat won only one round.

    Based on these match-ups, it can be argued that Louisiana merits no higher ranking than #19.

    – Similarly, #14 ranked Arizona never beat a team better than #34 (out of 40), yet Mr. Bakko complains that Massachusetts which at #20 beat the higher ranked #33 should be asterisked for facing a weak schedule.

    – Finally, #5 ranked Nevada beat #35 and #15, lost to #12 and then beat #21, yet was ranked higher than #12 Kentucky, who beat them head-to-head while only losing to near top-ranked #4. In fact, a total of 7 teams were ranked at least 5 places *lower* than a team they beat head-to-head.

    The truth is that it is mathematically impossible to create a matching system that after a mere 4 rounds results in a statistically significant complete ordinal ranking of all teams. Claiming the contrary would be equivalent to saying that one could schedule a football season of just 4 games and not just determine the Super Bowl winner but also delineate the precise ranking of all other 31 teams.

    Unfortunately, the NHSMTC Power Matching system suffers from even more significant flaws in that the rankings are based purely on raw win-loss, ballot, and point totals. There is no retrospective normalization of these raw scores to reflect the vastly different strength of opponents, the relative generosity of different judging panels in awarding points, the randomness of assignments within a round (particularly the first round) or even the logically conflicting results of direct head-to-head match-ups.

    As a result of this analysis, I modify my previous claim to say that the NHSMTC organizers lack not only grace but also statistical aptitude.

    Jeff Kosowsky

    Newton, MA

    The writer is the father of a Mock Trial participant from MassachusettsReport


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?