Rawls Team wins Ames



With closely contested oral arguments, the respondent John Rawls Memorial Team emerged victorious in the final round of the 92nd Ames Moot Court competition held on November 12, 2003. Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, presided, along with Judges Fortunato Benavides, of the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, and Karen Nelson Moore, of the United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, in front of the filled Ames Courtroom with an overflow room in Austin North.

“Somebody has to win overall,” stated Ginsburg. “That decision is made particularly difficult by the fact that the teams were so well matched, which is not surprising.”

The case, Michelle Jones, Petitioner v. Harlan Oakes, Commissioner of the Ames Division of Motor Vehicles, and Clara Brooks, Ames State Treasurer, Respondents, involved an alleged First Amendment violation by the plaintiff’s inability to express her abortion beliefs on her license plate.

“It’s nice to be on the side of truth, justice, and of course, free speech,” commented Sarah Baumgartel, of the petitioner.

The case centered around the Ames legislation of the Choose Life License Plate Act (CLLPA) that authorized a “Choose Life” special registration plate, encouraging adoption over abortion. The petitioner challenged the constitutionality of the act, based on the legislature’s denial of a license plate that would express her pro-choice views, suing both the commissioner of Motor Vehicles and the Ames State Treasurer as administrators of the act. Petitioner appealed from summary judgment for the defendants in the district court and court of appeals.

“The most important lesson I learned is to have an open mind about your argument,” commented Rob Velevis, also of the Wellstone team. “It is going to evolve dramatically as more people have input into it. That evolution is a good thing, but won’t happen if people are too wedded to their arguments to accept changes.”

The central questions of the case were twofold. The first issue was whether petitioner had standing under Article III of the Constitution to challenge the CLLPA, and the second issue focused on whether the CLLPA did in fact violate petitioner’s right to freedom of speech under the First and Fourteenth amendment.

“Where the government opens a forum, whether it is a public or nonpublic forum, there’s an obligation to allow all viewpoints,” asserted Chris Monsour, oralist for the petitioner. “The question should not be whether an entire program constitutes private speech, but whether a significant private speech interest exists in a program. This strikes at the very heart of the freedoms that the first amendment guarantees.”

The other representatives of the petitioner, the Paul Wellstone Memorial Team were Anna Lumelsky and Nels Peterson, with Chris Monsour and Josh Kelner as the two oralists. For the respondent, the John Rawls Memorial Team, Geoffrey Wyatt was team captain, with oralists Aaron Katz and Elizabeth Oyer, as well as Will Edwards, Scott Michelman and Chris Pistilli. “CLLPA is not the cause of her disadvantage,” asserted Katz regarding the issue of her standing. “It does not exclude her from the forum or prevent the legislature from creating the license plate. The law that she seeks to enjoin must itself be illegal.”

“Through the political process, she hasn’t succeeded in electing legislatures who espouse her political view,” added Oyer.

The unanimous decision of the court was that Elizabeth Oyer of the respondents should be awarded best oralist. The award for not the “best brief” but the “best briefing,” went to petitioner.

“It is something that you come to realize with time and experience that it’s really a conversation you want to have with the bench,” advised Ginsburg. “It should be as though you’re sitting around table discussing it, though obviously more formal than that, but it can’t be programmed.”

The final competition featured two teams of six that had begun competing in this case in their second year. The final round represented the climax of more than a year of preparation and several previous rounds.

“The oral arguments really helped us to understand the issues in the case,” commented Moore. “All of you are certainly welcome in the sixth circuit as advocates – you’d raise the level substantially.”

“The very core of our system is a reliance, a trust, a faith in the work of lawyers,” asserted Benavides. “Always be as serious as you were, always as mindful to how important you are to society. Lawyers shape the law, we’re just the referees. We need you to be good.”

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