Brigham Young University wins top Moot Court honors

Friday, February 20, 2009

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The team from J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, won the 19th Annual National First Amendment Moot Court Competition today at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. Winning team members were Benjamin Smith and Kirstin Norman.

Runner-up in the two-day competition, sponsored by the First Amendment Center and Vanderbilt University Law School, was the team from University of Mississippi School of Law. Team members were Julianne Lofton and Spencer Ritchie.

The competition problem involved the limits of free speech for public employees. Teams of student advocates from 35 law schools argued both sides of the case.

“The issue is very volatile right now, it’s very timely and it’s something that everybody seems to have different opinions on,” said Norman from the winning Brigham Young University team. “It was just a pleasure and an honor to be able to get to argue it here.”

Said teammate Smith, “I thought it was a great problem. It involved, on both sides, legal nuance and strong policy currents, and so it was a challenge. Also, there was plenty of fodder from both the circuit courts and the U.S. Supreme Court to prepare our brief and our arguments.”

Recognized for “best brief” in the competition were Smith and Norman from Brigham Young; and for “best oralist,” Sarah McBride from University of California – Davis School of Law.

Lofton of the runner-up University of Mississippi team said, “I thought it was a great problem. It was very complex, and it took a lot of diligent work to sort through everything. It was equally challenging to argue on both sides.” Ritchie, her colleague, said the competition “really hyped my interest in First Amendment law.”

A total of $5,000 in prizes was awarded to:

  • Winning team ($2,000): J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University
  • Runner-up ($1,000): University of Mississippi School of Law
  • Semi-finalists ($500 each): Brooklyn Law School and University of California – Davis School of Law
  • Best brief ($500): Benjamin Smith and Kirstin Norman, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University
  • Richard S. Arnold Best Oralist Award ($500): Sarah McBride, University of California – Davis School of LawReceiving competition gavels:
  • Runner-up best brief: Fergus Kaiser and Andrew Wellin, Brooklyn Law School
  • Runner-up best oralist: Nicholas Hantel, DePaul University College of LawRecognized as one of the nation’s finest constitutional-law competitions, the First Amendment Moot Court Competition attracts many of the nation’s top law schools.
  • This year’s Moot Court problem examined one of the most contentious (and most litigated) areas of First Amendment jurisprudence — the First Amendment rights of public employees. It asks whether an assistant district attorney had a free-speech right to speak to a blogger, make critical comments to his superior and send a letter to the state attorney general criticizing his office’s handling of a case. The student-advocates had to examine the contours of public-employee jurisprudence to determine whether the assistant district attorney engaged in protected citizen speech or unprotected employee speech.

    “This year’s competition provides future lawyers an opportunity to explore a growing issue: When do public employees surrender the right to speak independently, with First Amendment protection?” said Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. “The public depends on those independent voices to speak out about issues such as waste, corruption and incompetency, but recent court decisions may limit how much can be said outside of approved channels.”

    At the close of the competition, First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler exhorted the law students “to use your First Amendment rights to support and defend an independent judiciary.

    “This country is so lucky because of the way it resolves disputes,” Seigenthaler said. “It does [this] because of the integrity of the judiciary.”

    Judge Julia Smith Gibbons of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said, “Judging moot court competitions is always a wonderful thing. Because the quality of the arguments is so high, it really restores your faith in the future of the legal profession.”

    Tiffany Villager, director of First Amendment studies for the First Amendment Center, said, “As they say in the opening of ‘Law and Order,’ our competition hypotheticals are ‘ripped from the headlines.’ We look for cutting-edge First Amendment issues that are newsworthy at competition time.” Villager directs the Moot Court program.

    Competition began yesterday morning in rounds held both at the Vanderbilt School of Law and at the John Seigenthaler Center on the Vanderbilt campus, home to the Nashville offices of the First Amendment Center.

    The best-oralist award for the highest oral-argument score in preliminary rounds comes with an engraved gavel in honor of Richard S. Arnold, formerly a judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Arnold, who died in 2004, was a staunch advocate for better press-bar relations so that the public would be better informed about the activities of the federal court system.

    Semi-final and final-round judges in the competition included, from the federal judiciary, Steven M. Colloton, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Martha Craig Daughtrey, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Bernice Donald, district judge, Western District of Tennessee; Robert L. Echols, district judge, Middle District of Tennessee; Sidney Fitzwater, chief judge, Northern District of Texas; Julia Gibbons, 6th Circuit; Marian F. Harrison, bankruptcy judge, Middle District of Tennessee; William J. Haynes Jr., district judge, Middle District of Tennessee; Reggie B. Walton, district judge, District of Columbia; and Susan Webber Wright, district judge, Eastern District of Arkansas. Joining them from the state judiciary was Cornelia A. Clark, Tennessee Supreme Court.

    A two-person team from the University of Georgia School of Law won last year’s competition. The demanding competition requires students to write an appellate brief and to answer challenging legal questions from the judges. The event requires a thorough understanding of First Amendment law, poise under pressure and expertise in fielding complex legal questions.

    The First Amendment Center works to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, the right to assemble and petition the government.

    The First Amendment Center is an operating program of the Freedom Forum and is associated with the Newseum. The center has offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Its affiliation with Vanderbilt University is through the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies.

    Press contact:
    Gene Policinski