Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia presided over oral arguments in the championship round of the Law School’s Van Vleck Constitutional Law Moot Court Competition last week.
The annual competition, which began in September, allows students to practice oral and written legal skills by researching cases, writing briefs and presenting oral arguments. Third-year law students Christina Davis and Julian Helisek won this year’s competition, in which they argued against Lucas Hanback and Matthew Yoeli in a mock Supreme Court case.
Alongside Scalia on the bench were Justices Marsha Berzon and Jeffrey Sutton, of the 9th and 6th Circuit United States Courts of Appeals, respectively. Scalia and his colleagues captivated a full house with their relentless questioning.
The fictional case was the appeal of a political activist, Melissa Kelly, who was convicted of setting fire to a religious memorial that she had opposed. Suspecting Kelly, police searched her laptop with permission from her roommate. Although the roommate rescinded her consent, the police kept a copy of the laptop’s hard drive data and later found pictures of the suspect lighting the memorial on fire.
“I don’t like talking about religious affiliation like it’s a club,” Scalia said, sparking laughter from the audience.
David and Helisek successfully argued that the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights had not been violated when the police determined that the roommate had apparent authority to consent to the laptop search.
Arguing for the plaintiff, Hanback and Yoeli claimed that the Court’s strike of an atheist from the jury was unlawful because it was based on religious affiliation. They argued that religious affiliation should be treated like gender or race.
Scalia responded to an argument about atheist stereotypes with, “Let me strike a rock band guitarist because I have the notion that rock band guitarists are crazy, weird people who will not, as an ordinary matter, be willing to support law and order, okay?”
He continued, “That’s a stereotype. Is that a no-no? Isn’t every peremptory challenge based upon a stereotype?”
When Davis argued that turning on a computer would alter the evidence it contained, Scalia asked whether a court would disallow an incriminating picture because it had been altered slightly. “I can’t believe we’re that foolish,” Scalia said.
Both Berzon and Sutton said after the competition that the law students were better than some lawyers that argue in their courts.
“I want you to get out there and start helping us out with these cases,” Sutton said to the students.
The judges offered the competitors advice as well. Scalia urged them to notice when a judge is trying to help clarify an argument and to move on when they have made their point so they do not run out of time for the next segment of their argument.
Students Michael Rhoads, Rachel Mandell-Rice and Sara Brauner wrote the hypothetical case under the direction of professors Orin Kerr and Amanda Tyler. Scalia said that student-invented cases often have a flaw that makes an aspect of the case nondebatable.
“I thought this was a very well-balanced problem and it was awfully well-written,” Scalia said.
In a brief speech, Law School Dean Frederick Lawrence discussed the importance of the Moot Court Competition and oral arguments, which he called “the hallmark of a civilized society.” n