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Cardozo HS teen ‘lawyer’ holds court at D.C. meet

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While his peers were sleeping in and relaxing during the spring recess, he and the other high school students in the program woke up at 6:30 a.m. to begin their day with a planning session and then a trip to a courthouse or law firm. Later they would separate into teams and hold mock legal proceedings.

"It was pretty stressful to make sure it was done in one day," West, a junior at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Bayside, said of preparing for those proceedings. The program featured two days of holding mock trials, in which one team played the defense and one the prosecution, and two days of preparing and presenting a 30-page brief and a 30-minute oral argument before a mock Supreme Court.

West was one of 350 high school juniors and seniors from the country chosen to take part in the forum, with a minimum 3.3 GPA and a letter of recommendation from a teacher required. While other students from Queens - Racine Rodriguez of Astoria, Anne Leung of Bayside and Jessie Chaves of Queens Village - also participated, West won one of the highly competitive scholarships to attend and was later nominated to be lead counsel for his team.

West attributed the latter honor to his experience with mock trial, which Cardozo offers as an extracurricular activity. Students are assigned roles such as witness or lawyer and then practice arguing the case before competing against other schools in an annual tournament.

To join the program, interested Cardozo students must get recommendations from their teachers and then pass a cross-examination. Peter Ridout, a political science and law teacher who runs the program, said it is composed of about 30 students every year, with more than 100 applicants for the dozen or so spots that open up annually.

"We look for students who can make a coherent argument," Ridout said. "Brett was able to defend his point of view. He very quickly understands how the abstract laws fit into the practical aspects of a case."

Ridout and Nina Tricarico, a social studies teacher at Cardozo, helped West get into the law forum by advising him on his application essays and scholarship forms.

"We thought Brett would be a natural fit for this," Ridout said before the event.

West said he got his start in the legal realm at PS 18 in Queens Village, where students who got into trouble were put on trial and assigned other students to represent them.

"I was an undefeated lawyer," West said.

During his early years in school he was also involved in acting, a skill he said has helped him in his endeavors in the law. But he soon realized that acting was a difficult career path. At the same time, he witnessed how his mother, a divorcee, struggled in the courts to get his father to pay for child support.

"As I kept seeing what my mom went through I became more interested in it," West said.

That is not to say he plans to pursue a legal career in family issues. Instead, he plans to practice maritime law after first going to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.

"I want to serve my country," he said.

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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