Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Watching the Moot

Main Entry: moot court
Function: noun
:  a
mock court in which law students argue hypothetical cases for practice

Over the weekend I had my first experience watching a moot court when I went to see my friend Ellery, a second year law student, compete in the Byron L. Warnken Annual Moot Court Competition. I really had no idea what to expect going in – would there be a jury? Was it going to be like watching an episode of Law and Order? Was I going to be bored out of my mind?

No, no and no.

The set-up was actually a little American Idol, with three judges (dressed as judicial judges and judging the competitors) and I could even identify who was the Paula, the Randy and the Simon. The competitors had already turned in their briefs and were now presenting their oral arguments.

The case was rather fascinating: a young woman, Ms. Tuckerman had created a blog which was very popular with the student body, on which she theorized that a fellow student, Mr. Walsh (her main competition for Valedictorian) cheated on a pop-quiz. The school claimed that the blog entry created a disruption at the school, as the number of students disciplined for being on their phones increased substantially in the days following the blog post. The Vice-Principal, Ms. Bliss, investigated the charge of cheating, which she found to be unsubstantiated and she counter-accused Ms. Tuckerman of trying to distract Mr. Walsh from his studies. Ms. Tuckerman was subsequently disciplined for the blog post.

My friend was arguing that the school had absolutely no right to discipline Ms. Tuckerman for her blog post, written on her own time at home and, as such, was not under school authority, and that by disciplining her the school violated her First Amendment Rights. The counter-argument of the other team was that Ms. Tuckerman wrote the post about the school, knowing that she had a wide following among her classmates and that it would cause a disruption to the school – which, using Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District as a precedent, holds that school officials may censor students in cases where it causes a danger or material and substantial interference with the school.

However, despite the interesting subject matter, what I found most fascinating about moot court was the interruptions in arguments. Each competitor was given 10 minutes to stand in front of the judges and argue their side of the case. Those 10 minutes could have consisted of speeches, but the judges are expected to interrupt with questions, which the competitors must answer. Talk about thinking on your feet! The judges threw everything from opinions to little-known precedents to far-fetched examples at each of the competitors, to test their understanding of the case and, not just how well they knew the law, but how they thought the law should be applied based on that knowledge.

It was not fast-paced, but it went by much more quickly than I thought it would and it made me very glad I’m not a law student. Most impressive was my friend – and that’s not just me being biased! If confidence can win a case, he stole the show. Stood straight, stayed calm in the face of an obnoxiously needling judge, and said everything with complete assuredness. He could’ve been making up half of what he said, and I would have believed him just based on his apparent certainty.  The most astonishing thing was that he was the only competitor to go the entire time without his notes. He stood up there with nothing but his brains and his suit, and it was inspiring. The judges and his competition were impressed too.

I don’t think I’ll become an avid moot-court watcher, but I’d certainly return to watch people I know compete. It was an interesting and educational morning (plus, men look good in suits)!
In some ways it reminded me of improv theater, similar to Commedia Dell'Arte. Each competitor got up, knowing the information that they wanted/needed to get out, and yet they had to constantly change up what they were saying as they answered questions or altered their information to fit the audience's (the judges') desires. There were some stumbles, a lot of nerves, but they all kept their cool and came out the otherside. Afterwards the judges complimented them all on their composure - apparently not everyone in the competition had dealt as well with the interruptions and questions. I'm kind of sad I missed seeing those!

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