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Religious Accommodation Dispute Over Mock Trial Schedule ResolvedJewish team's trials are rescheduled after judge bars use of courthouse unless all can participate fully
Fulton County Chief Judge Doris L. Downs stepped in Wednesday and unilaterally resolved an increasingly bitter dispute over the national high school mock trial competition that has prompted a resignation from the Georgia State Bar Board of Governors, caused a Georgia state judge to withdraw her participation in the event and drawn the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, while tainting the event with allegations of religious discrimination.
Daily Report2009-05-08 12:00:00 AM
Fulton County, Ga., Chief Judge Doris L. Downs stepped in Wednesday evening and unilaterally resolved an increasingly bitter dispute over the national high school mock trial competition that has prompted a resignation from the State Bar Board of Governors, caused a Fulton County State Court judge to withdraw her participation in the event and drawn the attention of the Department of Justice, while tainting the event with allegations of religious discrimination.
The National High School Mock Trial Championship's board reluctantly agreed to alter a computer-generated mock trial schedule to accommodate the religious observance of the Saturday Sabbath by the Maimonides School team of Brookline, Mass., whose members are Orthodox Jews, after Downs on Wednesday night notified the board that she would withdraw permission to use the Fulton County Courthouse if the board did not ensure that the team could participate fully in the event and honor their Sabbath obligations, which forbid them from engaging in any scheduled mock trial matches on Saturday.
Fulton courtrooms had been set aside on Friday and Saturday for an estimated 100 mock trials by 42 high school teams from across the nation, the U.S. territories and South Korea that are competing in the national event, which is hosted by the State Bar of Georgia.
The dispute over whether the Massachusetts team would have to forfeit matches because of their Sabbath observance caused Fulton County State Court Judge Diane Bessen on Wednesday to withdraw as a competition judge in protest, and Alston & Bird partner Elizabeth A. Price resigned from the State Bar's Board of Governors in response to the Bar's handling of the event.
Leah Ward Sears, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, has also withdrawn from participating as a judge in the championship finals. Sears made the decision Sunday not to participate, said Jane Hansen, a spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court. But the chief justice “did not want to say why she made her decision,” Hansen said.
After withdrawing, Sears subsequently made personal plans and will stick with her decision not to participate, although Hansen said the chief justice is "very pleased" that the controversy has been resolved.
Downs' threat to bar the event from the Fulton County Courthouse prompted the mock trial board Wednesday night to agree to alter the competition schedule so that the Massachusetts team may participate fully in the championships. The board's membership includes Georgia Supreme Court Justice George H. Carley and State Bar staff member Stacy Rieke. Both Carley and Rieke have referred all questions about the controversy to board chairman John Wheeler, who runs the Iowa State Bar Association's Center for Law and Civic Education.
In an interview Thursday with the Fulton County Daily Report, Downs said that she did not learn until Wednesday that the mock trial board had refused to accommodate the religious observances of the Massachusetts team. She also learned Wednesday that attorneys for the team had filed a discrimination complaint with the Justice Department's civil rights office and that Justice had responded with a letter to state court authorities threatening an investigation if any recipient of federal funds among the participating judiciary was found to have discriminated against the Massachusetts team.
The chief judge said that once she learned of the growing controversy, she placed calls to Carley and Jeffrey O. Bramlett, president of the State Bar of Georgia.
Bramlett, a partner with Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, had previously taken the position that the State Bar was powerless to force any schedule changes by the terms of the Bar's contract with the mock trial board. Carley this week referred all questions about the board's position to Wheeler. But last month, he told the Blog of the Legal Times, a Fulton County Daily Report affiliate, "We're not discriminating against anyone. It's just our schedule."
Downs said that after speaking with Carley and Bramlett "My understanding ... was that the only group that could make a decision [to accommodate the Massachusetts team] was the board," Downs said. "When I realized that no one could deal with it but the board and that it appeared the board was not going to deal with the problem, then I made my decision, and I'm thrilled that the board was able to change their position so that we could host it.
"When I found out no one else could do anything, then I acted."
Downs, who will be one of the mock trial competition's judges on Saturday, said that she absolutely would have barred the event from using the courthouse if the board had not capitulated.
"I don't have any reason to believe [the board] would ever, ever intend to discriminate," she said. "I believe they would not." But, she continued, "What I think is that it's not fair for a team that wins its state title not to be able to compete. Whether it's legal or not legal is not something I'm willing to make a determination on. It's a matter of fundamental fairness to a team that won their state championship. ... This is a competition involving high school students, and we want to teach them not only how to work hard and compete fairly but also how to respect each other."
Downs said she also acted because, "This national competition should be about the students. It looks like we have become focused on an issue which is going to undermine the true nature of these competitions. I'm for getting it back on track. That's why I think it was a no-brainer. ... This program is amazing nationwide, and students who win their states' competitions work for months to get there ... and we need to start celebrating the hard work and the efforts of these students and set a good example for them and welcome them to our state, which is what I want to do and our court wants to do."
On Thursday, national board chairman Wheeler could not be reached for comment. But Wheeler apparently felt the board was bullied into making the schedule change. In a statement Wheeler released Wednesday night, he said, "Unfortunately, the board is now faced with the prospect that this year's national championship will be cancelled unless it agrees to alter the competition schedule. A decision was made by the Fulton County Superior Court Administrator's office and the Fulton County attorney's office that unless an accommodation allowing the Massachusetts team to fully participate was granted, then the Fulton County Courthouse facilities would no longer be available to Mock Trial.
"Although no legal precedent exists to force this accommodation," the statement continued, "the board, in order to ensure that all 42 teams that have prepared for the National Championship are able to compete, the board has voted to alter the competition schedule."
He added, the board "firmly believes that it has not discriminated against any group nor done anything in violation of any section of the [federal] civil rights laws. On the contrary, all actions have been religiously neutral as we live in a country of many faiths and it is not always possible to accommodate everyone."
The board's decision to reverse its earlier stance required that the mock trial competitive matches begin Thursday evening rather than Friday, with the Massachusetts team as one of the first participants. "Other scheduling changes also will be made to allow for complete participation by the Massachusetts team," the board statement said.
Bramlett could not be reached for comment Thursday. In a letter to the Fulton County Daily Report that was published Tuesday, Bramlett said the State Bar's contract with the national mock trial board gave it "no legal basis" to compel it to make the scheduling changes required to accommodate the Massachusetts team and that it faced "onerous financial penalties" if it attempted to cancel the event.
Bramlett also had expressed his personal hope that "an accommodation acceptable to all could be reached."
On Thursday, Price -- who also is chair of the Southeast Region of the Anti-Defamation League -- said that Bramlett's position prompted her resignation from the Bar's governing board.
"I felt very strongly that the Bar needed to put pressure on the national mock trial group to act fairly," she said Thursday. "I didn't see it as a legal question. I saw it as a question of what was fair and right under these circumstances."
Price also praised Downs' actions in resolving the impasse. "It was very courageous of her to make this decision that forced this board to act," she said.
Jeff Kosowsky, the father of the Massachusetts team's co-captain, said Thursday that he learned of Downs' decision late Wednesday night. "It was literally a storybook ending," he said. "We were about to think, 'It's all over; time is about to run out,' when we received an e-mail notifying us of the judge's decision."
Kosowsky said that the controversy over whether or not his son's team would be allowed to participate fully in the competition "was not a conflict we had any desire to enter into. The sooner it's over, the sooner it's resolved, the sooner the wounds are healed, the better for everybody. ... The one thing I would not want to come from this is any divisions or hard feelings. The important thing is that the kids have the opportunity to compete. We are all guests of the Atlanta community, and we certainly don't want to leave behind any ill feelings."
But Kosowsky said that the board still needs to change its policy of continuing to hold the national championships over a Friday and Saturday while barring teams that may have conflicting religious observances from full participation. The national board was confronted with the same issue at the 2005 national championships in North Carolina when the New Jersey state champions from the Orthodox Torah Academy of Bergen County protested the Saturday schedule. The national mock trial board was unwilling to change the schedule in 2005, but the North Carolina trial lawyers' association, host to the event, summarily rearranged the schedule. Stung by the North Carolina lawyers' override of the mock trial board's authority, the group later voted never again to make any accommodation for religious reasons.
Despite the board's similar forced capitulation in Georgia, the question remains open as to what it may do in the future.
"I would think after this having happened twice and been disruptive to the very event they are trying to promote, they would realize they should have a more productive and collaborative way to deal with this situation and to accommodate religious observance," Kosowsky observed.
"The best thing would be for them to step back and resolve it themselves," he said. But if national board members insist on adhering to a no-accommodation policy "and dig their heels in even further," Kosowsky continued, "then we all have a duty to respond and show we didn't just do it for our own children, but we did it because it was the best thing, not just for now but for the future."