Taking Sides

BY MITCH WEBBER

1. Scripture tells us that joy comes in the morning. I’ve found that sometimes religion itself comes as well. Like when my alarm goes off at 8:30 after less than four hours of sleep. I panic a little, with only twenty minutes to shower and get to class, until I remember that it’s Rosh Hashana. So I tell myself, “To hell with it. God would prefer I sleep in.”

Sadly, my devotion never outlasts morning fatigue. By the time International Law meets – blissfully after noon – my little inner heathen has regained authority.

2. There’s not much I believe in. When you’re as self-absorbed as I am, there just isn’t enough time to contemplate the nature of the universe.

But I do believe in what I’m studying, and I’m a sucker for a good pep talk on law and justice. For example, I saw a movie in high school about a team of ACLU lawyers who helped neo-Nazis win a permit to march in Skokie, Illinois, home to a sizable community of Holocaust survivors. I was thrilled by all the lofty talk about liberty and free speech and protecting the marginalized, whether we agree with their message or not. There were the standard self-congratulatory slogans and the thematic background admonition: “First they came for the Communists … then they came for the Jews … then they came for me …”

At the time I thought, “That’s exactly the sort of lawyer I want to be: someone who believes so much in the law’s abstract majesty that he’s willing to defend monsters. That’s principle.”

But is it? I’m reconsidering. Is it really likely that the whole edifice of American liberties would have crumbled if a town board had prevented the National Socialist Party of America from taunting and provoking elderly Jews? After all, France and Germany, despite criminalizing Nazi speech, have dug in quite well against the slippery slope to despotism.

3. Last week, 3L Mike Lorelli, an oralist on one of the Ames finalist teams, dropped out of the competition. The Ames Committee assigned to his team the defense of gay marriage, and Lorelli felt that he couldn’t make that argument in good conscience.

Lorelli is devout and generally socially conservative. I don’t know his exact position on gay marriage, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to speculate here. It’s enough to say that I disagree with Mike on gay marriage, as I do on many other issues. We lived down the hall from each other last year, and although we got along fine, our longest conversations consisted of Mike defending The Passion’s textual accuracy against my insistence that no matter what the Bible says, Judas was most likely a Swedish national.

Anyway, for those of you new to the school, Ames moot court is a big deal. Everyone goes to Austin to watch, drink, cheer, and heckle. We paint our faces blue and take our shirts off to expose letters that, when arranged beside fellow torso-bearers, spell out obscenities and / or Latin legalese. (It’s especially funny if you “forget” that you need two i’s to spell res ipsa loquitur, so that some poor guy has to keep running back and forth between positions.) You get the idea. Making the finals is an accomplishment worth writing home about. I would argue against my own mother’s parole if I got to do it in the Ames final.

So I’m baffled by a guy who wouldn’t argue a point – any point – in an exhibition marked by so much prestige and fanfare. But Lorelli decided he couldn’t commit himself to spending the semester preparing a brief and oral argument – to be presented to federal judges and in front of the school – in favor of a policy of which he disapproves.

Absent a conflict of interest, refusing to take the side of whichever party wants to retain you is against the spirit of the law as a service industry. Similarly, no doubt, refusing a given side in moot court is against the spirit of the competition. Part of the challenge of moot court is in mastering close and uncomfortable positions.

But what Lorelli did is endearing. During our careers, we won’t all have the luxury to work exclusively, or even predominantly, for our own pet agendas. I don’t see why we shouldn’t insist on doing so now, then, when the controversies are only hypothetical.

What matters to an ACLU lawyer in Skokie is that a client’s legal avenues are pursued and his rights exhausted, no matter the consequences. Lorelli is no ACLU lawyer (an understatement). He proved last week that he’ll walk away from the law when his personal beliefs conflict with his role as an advocate. Agree with his positions or not, that’s principle.

4. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will anyway. In no way am I suggesting that gay marriage proponents resemble Nazis, and neither, I’m sure, would Lorelli. Such a comparison would be obscene.

Only this: when all that comes to me in the morning is grogginess, I’m comforted to know I have classmates who see a difference between being able to argue both sides and actually advancing those arguments.

Mitch Webber is a 2L. His column will appear regularly.

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