|The magazine of University of Houston-Clear Lake
fall 2012 | volume 19 | number 1
Class is in Session
New Mock Trial Courtroom Adds Realness to Legal Studies
It may have taken 10 years to take UHCL’s new mock trial courtroom from idea to reality, but Associate Professor of Legal Studies Jim Benson is too busy focusing on the future of the university’s legal program to dwell on it. Not content to settle for the judge’s bench and witness stand he built in his driveway and then reassembled for occasional use on campus, Benson took a chance that paid off – for his colleagues as well as future students.
“Last fall I sent letters to county judges in Galveston, Harris and Fort Bend Counties; I took a wild shot asking for the donation of old courtroom furniture,” says Benson, who also serves as faculty adviser to Legal Studies Student Association.
The lone response from Fort Bend County, which relocated its judicial functions to a new building the previous year, was an offer to sell the furniture from four district courtrooms being phased out.
“They said they couldn’t donate it, so I asked them to give me a price,” says Benson.
Making the drive to Fort Bend with his wife, Susan, Benson measured and photographed the furniture from all four courtrooms. He selected the contents of the last and smallest courtroom, Fort Bend County 400th District Court, since it best suited the size of a typical classroom.
Next, he drafted a proposal with the help of local attorney, UHCL legal studies alumnus and adjunct professor Bryan Wilcox, who helped create floor plans with Benson’s measurements. School of Business Dean Ted Cummings approved the submission of the proposal to Provost Carl A. Stockton. Stockton agreed to fund the purchase and allow the project to move forward.
The next surprise was the price — $1,000. New courtroom furniture usually costs between $20,000 and $30,000, says Benson.
Classroom space in the Bayou Building was chosen to house the mock courtroom.
Crafted from oak, the furniture includes a curved judge’s bench topped with marble, a witness stand, clerk stand, a jury box that seats six, a court-reporter desk and seating for the bailiff, and pew-style benches for public seating. Counsel tables and a lectern were added along with upgraded microphones and speakers.
“It elevates learning; it improves the environment for learning,” says Benson. “It teaches mechanics of the courtroom and makes the experience more realistic.”
Known for putting his students on the spot with hypothetical legal problems, Benson says he observed a marked change in behavior when previous students used his homemade courtroom.
“When they actually walked in and saw the bench and tables sitting there, it ratcheted up their anxiety,” says Benson, who develops the hypothetical criminal and civil cases for his classes, “American System of Trial by Jury” and “Mock Trial.”
Assistant Professor of Legal Studies M. Alix Valenti teaches two legal studies courses and is enthusiastic about the new mock courtroom.
“The new classroom will be perfect for the course that I teach each spring,” says Valenti. “In addition to writing a legal brief in a criminal matter, students will now have the opportunity to argue their case in a courtroom setting.”
Such hands-on learning provides a unique opportunity for students.
Current legal studies student Jimi Cebulla participated in a mock trial exercise in the UHCL Garden Room for a research conference.
“The learning experience was beyond what I expected,” says Cebulla, who will graduate next year. “Reading and researching the concepts is very different from putting them in motion in front of a judge, our peers, and faculty. I came away from the experience with a wealth of knowledge and confidence.”
Benson’s long-term vision includes inviting schools to use the room for debates or renting it to law firms to prepare for trial while helping fund scholarships for legal studies.
“It’s taken a long time and hard work to get here,” says Benson. “But all of it is a win-win situation.”
The dark hardwood judge’s gavel punctuating calls to order, adjournments, rulings and proclamations in the new mock courtroom will be more than a symbol of authority.
Donated by Associate Professor Legal Studies Jim Benson, the gavel is part of the estate of The Honorable Judge Russell P. Austin, who graduated in 1980 with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning was posthumously recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus in 2008.
The award has honored graduates who have made significant contributions to society and brought credit to the institutions since 1984.
“Judge Austin was an exceptional and well-liked probate judge for many years,” says Kimberly Hightower, Probate Court No. 1 trial/court coordinator. “But I feel his true passion was teaching, which probably had a significant impact on the type of judge he was.”
Hightower was Judge Austin’s secretary and personal assistant from 1987 until his death in June 2008.
Austin was known as patient, efficient and well-versed in law, and enjoyed mentoring newly licensed attorneys and law school interns. He worked in probate and real estate law for 24 years, before he was elected to bench of Harris County Probate Court No. 1 in 1994. He was a U.S. Navy veteran and an adjunct professor.
“I believe Judge Austin would be truly pleased and honored to know that pieces from his courtroom … his life … are being used in the UH-Clear Lake mock trial courtroom,” says Hightower. “The tradition of excellence carries on.”
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