Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito presided over the Law School’s annual Van Vleck Moot Court Thursday, marking the second consecutive year a member of the nation’s highest court has judged the competition.
More than 1,200 students crowded the seats of Lisner Auditorium to hear the proceedings, which are modeled after the U.S. appellate court system. Four students – two groups of two – presented cases supporting opposing sides of a problem authored by Law School students.
The problem argued before the Court focused on the application of Fourth Amendment rights to private online chat rooms. In the fictional case, FBI agents used an Internet service provider to monitor a private message board without a warrant after learning that several board members were donating money to overseas terrorist operations.
“I thought they did a wonderful job,” Alito said of the competitors. “They did a good job of explaining the Internet as much as needed to be explained for judges who may not always know a whole lot about it.”
Presiding alongside Alito were appellate Judges Diane Wood and Jos? Cabranes. Throughout the hour-long event, the three-judge panel often interrupted presenters to ask questions and clarify ambiguous statements. Last year, newly-appointed Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts sat on the panel of judges.
“I think it’s a very important event in the life of the school,” said Law School Dean Fred Lawrence. “It’s a perfect example of where the curricular and extracurricular meet with the academic and practical.”
The student participants were finalists of a semester-long Moot Court competition that consisted of more than 100 competitors. The winners of Thursday’s event, Jonathan Bond and Eric Klein, defended the argument that clandestine observation of a message board does not constitute an illegal search.
“We worked really, really hard,” Klein said. “And all that hard work paid off for all of us because win or lose, everybody looked good.”
Finalists spent several weeks preparing by anticipating possible questions from judges and rehearsing appropriate responses.
“(In the final weeks) you’re either mooting or your sitting down and looking at the problems thinking about ways you can rephrase things (or) rework things,” said finalist Katie Borden.
In an interview after the event, Alito said that the case was very relevant to modern law. What constitutes a “search and seizure” online is a critical law debate and is constantly reshaping the Fourth Amendment, he said.
“Now we’re entering this new virtual world,” Alito said, “and we have to translate the precedents and principles we have dealing with physical grounds to the world of electronic communication.”
Throughout the trial, Alito related private online message boards to physical storefronts with owners that only allow certain clientele inside.
Judge Wood said that cyber-privacy is a complex law debate being addressed in courts across the nation. “Many of the most challenging issues that are coming before the courts … have to do with new technologies and Internet technologies,” Wood said. “So it was an excellent problem from that point of view.”
In the past decade, five Supreme Court Justices have presided over the Van Vleck Moot Court. Dean Lawrence said that the judges are often asked to participate in the contest a year in advance.
“Obviously the Supreme Court Justice is the anchor position that you want to be able to get on the court,” Lawrence said. He added that Law School professors Brad Clark and Josh Schwartz-both of whom are friends with Alito-helped bring the Justice to GW this year.
“These judges come here, they go back to their courts, and they talk about what they saw today,” Lawrence said. “It enhances the reputation (of the school) in terms of the people who talk about us.”
When asked about possible judges for next year’s competition, Lawrence said “We’re already working on it.”