BY OHIA AMADI
The final round of the 94th Annual Ames Moot Court competition took place on Thursday, November 17th in front of a packed Ames Courtroom. People unable to obtain lottery seating in Ames and students eager to participate in the traditional Bacchanalian festivities (brown bags of malt liquor and six-packs abounded) filled overflow seating throughout the first floor of Austin.
This year’s case, McNeil v. Lu, dealt with the constitutionality of curfews for minors. The case arose from an incident in which petitioners Spencer McNeil and Juan Perez, both minors, were caught playing video games at Amesville Playland, an amusement park, after curfew. After refusing to respond to inquiries about their ages, the two were detained by Playland officials until the Amesville Police arrived.
The case for the petitioners (consisting of the two affected minors and their parents) was argued by The John Hart Ely Memorial Team composed of 3Ls Bryce Callahan (Oralist), Andrew Cooper, Jordan Heller, Joshua Hurwit (Oralist), Nathan Kitchens and Jason Vollbracht. The case for the respondents (consisting of Sam Lu – Chief of Police, the County Prosecutor and Amesville Playland) was argued by The William H. Rehnquist Memorial Team composed of 3Ls Brian Fletcher, Adam Harber (Oralist), Nathan Holcomb, Joshua Salzman, S. Christopher Szczerban (Oralist) and Ramin Tohidi. Seven of the twelve litigants — five of the petitioners and two of the respondents — were from Section 3. They argued their case before a distinguished three judge panel, consisting of Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Emilio Garza of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Ilana Diamond Rovner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The proceedings began with oral arguments by the petitioners followed by the respondents and ended with a brief rebuttal by the petitioners. Throughout the process, the oralists faced intensive questioning from the judges, not least by Justice Souter.
At one point, Justice Souter pressed Szczerban on a key issue in the case-whether or not the owner of Playland was acting on behalf of the state in his detention of the petitioners, considering that he had committed similar detentions on eight different occasions. Justice Souter posed a hypothetical in which the police approved of the owner’s actions but stopped short of joining forces with him and asked whether this would suggest state action. As Szczerban began to hedge his answer, Justice Souter interjected, asking, “How about the answer to my hypo?” and calling for a “yes answer [which] means it’s the beginning of joint [state] action [or] a no action means it’s not.” With gravitas, Szczerban replied, “Yes, it would be the beginning, but certainly that would not be the end, and it’s the end that this Court should be concerned about,” which elicited a warm response from judges and audience alike.
It seemed that the hundreds of hours of collective preparation by each team had paid off as neither side appeared visibly shaken by the tough, though fair, questions.
At the conclusion of the oral arguments, the judges took a brief recess and returned with their decision and closing remarks. There were three awards given. Best Oralist went to Joshua Hurwit and Best Set of Briefs went to the Respondents as did Best Overall Team.
Judge Rovner then remarked on how impressed she was by each of the teams and that the job that they had done was “better than [they] see a lot of the time.” Judge Garza commented that one of the most difficult aspects of being a trial or appellate lawyer is “keep[ing] one’s composure and answer[ing] the questions with the least amount of fanfare and articulat[ing] a position.” Further, he urged the participants and the audience to take pride in the legal profession and the American judiciary system. Expounding on Judge Garza’s statements, Justice Souter mentioned, that even “old warhorses” who repeatedly argue in front of the Supreme Court get nervous from time to time — the tension manifesting itself in the form of a shaky hand. But, Souter observed, that tension is part of the excitement of being a trial lawyer. Also, through an anecdote about foxes (who know a lot of little things) and hedgehogs (who know one big thing), Justice Souter urged future lawyers to always pay attention to the hedgehog side of their brain and not lose sight of the larger issues. The program ended with Justice Souter’s reminiscings on John Hart Ely and the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, for whom the teams were named in memoriam.
When asked what they had gained from the experience, Harber and Szczerban, both of whom plan to be trial attorneys, expressed a much greater appreciation for the nuances of trial advocacy. Harber responded that he had “gained a different perspective on applying the law. You have to think about what’s convincing to a judge, not just what might seem like the correct answer academically.”
Now that the Herculean amount of work done in preparation for their arguments and the nerve-wracking competition have passed, what do the participants plan to do with their newly acquired freedom? Both Harber and Szczerban said that they had to catch up on a lot of classwork-not to mention to study for final exams. It seems that there is no rest for the trial-weary.