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Young campers get early taste of the law

Jake Vermeer-Hansen

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jake Vermeer-Hansen, 13, just likes to argue.

So even though his parents didn’t immediately guess he would love a mock trial youth camp better than a more traditional summer camp, it’s been an amazing fit for several summers.

“If you knew Jake, you would know he’s one of those kids who will debate anything, just for the sport of it,” says his dad, Mark Hansen.

His parents were scrolling through the UNM Continuing Education catalog a few years ago and struck gold for their son when they found the law camp, run by Metropolitan Court Judge Frank Sedillo, who presides over the civil division. The camp meets in the afternoons for a week.

Jake, who will be a freshman at Bosque School this year, says he thinks he’s found a calling in the law.

“I believe I will be a lawyer. The arguments are the most fun,” he says of the camp. “I think you gain the most from seeing other people’s points of view.”

Besides, Sedillo has a way with helping his young students understand the parts of the law they need for mock trial.

“Judge Sedillo presents it in a way that makes it easy to understand,” he explains.

Vivian Thompson, 10, says visiting Metropolitan Court Judge Frank Sedillo’s courtroom was one of her favorite parts of mock trial camp last summer.

Vivian Thompson, 10, who’s also been to a previous law camp, agrees.

“Judge Sedillo puts it in a fun way. It was really cool because he gave us a tour of the courthouse.”

The week starts with an introduction to the U.S. Constitution and takes campers through other laws and rules of evidence they need to present their case.

“It’s really fun and interesting to do a case,” she says. With a team, Vivian prepared opening and closing statements for prosecuting a case involving someone who died after being shoved off a cliff. Ultimately the mock trial jury didn’t find enough evidence to convict the defendant.

Vivian, who will attend seventh grade at Sandia Preparatory this term, doesn’t see herself as a courtroom lawyer when she gets older. She loves her swim meets too much and she also plays piano.

She says some kids at law camp find public speaking difficult.

“Personally it’s not that scary to me,” she says, because she’s had experience performing in public. “It can be a little intimidating for some kids, but I like how Judge Sedillo did it.” He had the kids introduce themselves and talk about things like their favorite color, she says. Vivian’s favorite is teal.

Later this month, kids from 10 to 14 years old, will wrestle with weighty problems at the mock trial camp.

Metro Court Judge Frank Sedillo says running biannual mock trial camps with younger students restores his optimism and faith in the world. Here, he listens to campers make their arguments. (Courtesy of UNM Continuing Education)

Amy Thompson, Vivian’s mom and program supervisor at UNM Continuing Education, says the mock trial camp that begins July 30 has opened a waiting list, and adds that it will be offered again in both the spring and summer.

Most mock trial experiences are directed toward high-school-aged participants, but this camp offers younger children an opportunity to look at the world of law and justice, she says.

“It’s popular,” she says. “Judge Sedillo is a great judge and teacher.”

Students are introduced to the skills they need to present their case at the mock trial, including public speaking, learning about legal structures, analytical thinking and organizing information.

Sedillo says the kids amaze him every time.

“What I see are kids who are excited to be involved in learning about these topics,” he says. “These are not easy topics – the concepts and laws are hard for anyone to understand.”

He offers campers a variety of cases to choose from, including familiar ones, like Goldilocks, Cinderella or the Three Pigs, but they always seem attracted to more complicated cases, like the one last summer about the cliffside death.

“It doesn’t get more complicated than a first-degree-murder,” he says. “They get passionate about it. We’ve all felt that passion when we find a topic that really interests us.”

He says the passion fuels the interactive learning process in the law camp. Campers play games and role play. It helps the students overcome their anxiety about speaking in public and they learn to think on their feet, skills that benefit everyone.

Like many of his colleagues on the bench, Sedillo says community service, like coaching the mock trial camps or sports, restores his optimism and faith in humanity.

“It’s wonderful to see them – to see the world through their eyes, not from a state of despair. We all have an innate sense of justice and fairness and that carries over into a willingness or desire to work at it. They are intelligent, compassionate and understanding. Kids everywhere are looking for an avenue to show their talent. Hopefully this class lets them do that.”