South Texas wins in 2003 First Amendment Moot Court

Wednesday, March 5, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — South Texas College of Law captured first place in the 13th Annual National First Amendment Moot Court Competition, co-sponsored by the First Amendment Center and the Vanderbilt University Law School.

It was the second time in three years that the school in Houston won the competition, prompting Vanderbilt Law School dean Kent Syverud to tell South Texas team members at the awards ceremony that they were “continuing a dynasty.”

The Feb. 27-28 competition featured two-person teams from 34 law schools across the country arguing a hypothetical U.S. Supreme Court case before panels of lawyers, law professors and federal judges. The competition requires competitors to engage in the challenge of oral advocacy — answering difficult legal questions posed by the judges. The competition requires an understanding of the First Amendment, thorough knowledge of case law, quick thinking, poise under pressure and mental gymnastics.

First Amendment case
The fictional consolidated cases of Eco Tours, Inc. v. Federal Election Commission and Federal Election Commission v. Singletary presented the question of whether federal laws limiting the ability of individuals and corporations to invest their own financial resources in campaign activities on behalf of political candidates whom they support are constitutional.

In the hypothetical case, the Federal Election Commission, as petitioner before the Supreme Court, contends the laws, particularly provision in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, are necessary to avoid corruption and the appearance of corruption in the political process. Kate Singletary and her corporation devoted to environmentalist causes, Eco Tours, Inc., contend the restrictions violate their First Amendment free-speech rights.

The problem carries great current relevance as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act is currently under challenge by various groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Rifle Association.

Final four
The final four teams were Brooklyn Law School (winner of the 1999 competition), University of Kentucky College of Law, University of Mississippi School of Law and South Texas. The first semifinal round featured Brooklyn, representing petitioner FEC, against Mississippi, representing Singletary and Eco Tours. The second semifinal pitted South Texas, representing the FEC, against Kentucky, representing Singletary and Eco Tours.

The semifinalists argued before a three-judge panel of Sidney A. Fitzwater, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Texas; Todd Campbell, U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Tennessee; and Erin A. O’Hara, a law professor at Vanderbilt University Law School.

All four teams performed well, prompting Campbell to tell the student advocates after one round that the skill they showed was “better than some of the lawyering in my courtroom.”

Mississippi and South Texas advanced to the final round. Both teams had to switch sides for the final round, as the Mississippi team of Brad Moody and Clayton Dabbs represented the FEC, while the South Texas team of Fletcher Trammel and Johanna Belford represented Singletary and Eco Tours. The advocates faced a five-member panel of distinguished federal judges:

  • Judge Julia S. Gibbons, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

  • Judge Richard S. Arnold, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
  • Judge Gilbert S. Merritt, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
  • Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
  • Judge Robert Echols, U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Tennessee

Final-round arguments
Mississippi, as petitioners, presented first. Dabbs argued that the limits on corporate ads were constitutional, while Moody defended the regulation limiting individual campaign spending allegedly “coordinated” with a campaign.

“This case is about making campaign laws effective and closing the loophole that is currently being abused by large corporate spenders,” Dabbs said. He said allowing corporate spending in campaigns “created a political debt” for political candidates that could lead to corruption.

“Our federal election system is (put) at risk by the games being played by campaigns and their supporters,” Moody said. The spending rules add a “new layer of protection” for our system’s campaign-finance laws that are necessary for a functioning democratic system of government.

The student lawyers faced tough questioning from a “hot” bench, as attorneys say when judges become sharply engaged with oral arguments. Questions included:

  • “What do you suppose James Madison (primary author of the First Amendment) would have thought of this?”

  • “What is there in the Constitution that says anything about weighing interests?”

  • “Is there anything in the record involving corruption in this case?”

  • “Shouldn’t we trust the voters to believe or disbelieve these ads?”
  • Next, the South Texas advocates argued on behalf of Eco Tours and Kate Singletary. “The First Amendment has always stood for the free flow of truthful information on matters of public concern,” Belford argued. She stressed that the ads produced by Eco Tours were issue-advocacy ads rather than express-advocacy ads (those specifically asking for votes for a certain candidate) and therefore deserved the protection of the First Amendment.

    Fletcher Trammell then argued that the regulations in this case violated the free-speech rights of Kate Singletary to engage in core political speech. “The issue in this case is whether Congress can regulate independent expenditures that constitute core political speech in a manner that is unrestrained by the First Amendment,” he said. He stressed that his client simply sought to “raise awareness about environment issues.”

    The respondents also faced lively questioning, on everything from corporate corruption to the views of James Madison to the “magic words” test from the U.S. Supreme Court’s major campaign-finance case, Buckley v. Valeo (1976).

    The respondents, particularly Trammell, adroitly answered the court’s questions and emphasized the importance of core political speech in our constitutional democracy.

    Verdict from the bench
    Moot Court “Chief Justice” Merritt announced that the panel had unanimously voted for South Texas. The bench praised all the competitors for their hard work and noted that they had faced many difficulties before reaching the final round. ““This is a case in which our society is divided, ideologically and in a partisan way, because the question is very difficult,” Merritt said. “The rule of law in this country operates at its best when a question of this kind is put to the process of oral advocacy.”

    Several justices particularly praised Trammell for his poise and advocacy skills displayed in the final round. “We all felt that Mr. Trammell had an exceptionally nice conversational style to his advocacy,” Daughtrey said.

    The justices emphasized the importance of oral argument to the legal profession and to a case. Several justices pointed out that oral arguments sometimes heavily influenced how they felt or decided a particular issue. “An effective oral argument is essential to your case,” Daughtrey said. Justices Arnold and Gibbons thanked the student advocates for the healthy intellectual exchange provided by their presentations.

    Reaction from the finalists
    The South Texas team was thrilled with the victory. “It was a tremendous privilege to argue in front of such distinguished jurists,” Trammell said. “It was a lot of hard work. We really value the intellectual exchange and benefit that we derived from this competition. We enjoyed studying the First Amendment and learned it is still a vital and viable part of the Constitution.”

    When questioned about the justices singling out his performance as exemplary, Trammell expressed his appreciation for the alumni at his school who helped the students prepare for oral argument. He added that the “most effective” advocates “seem more personable.”

    Belford said she was a bit “dumbfounded” at winning the competition. “This is the third moot court competition we’ve attended and this is by far the best one. It was simply an enjoyable experience. All the judges were wonderful.”

    Ellie Hodges, coach of the winning team and an adjunct advocacy instructor at South Texas, praised the student advocates: “This feels great. These young advocates worked really hard. They put in an unbelievable amount of time and effort. Our motto at South Texas is ‘We work harder than everybody else.’”

    The Mississippi team was gracious, saying it would have made no difference whether they argued as petitioners or respondents in the final round. “The team we faced was great,” Dabbs said. “South Texas deserved it.”

    Remarkably, the Mississippi team of Dabbs and Moody were both second-year law students. Many of the participants in the competition were third-year students. “These young men deserve a lot of credit,” said their coach, assistant professor of law Jack Nowlin, saying they had become “remarkable advocates.”

    Final reflections
    Judge Sidney Fitzwater described the importance of Moot Court this way: “This competition is first-class and the problem is created with a great deal of thought and insight. The First Amendment is the cornerstone of our civil liberties and a competition that brings together future lawyers to debate critical First Amendment issues can do nothing but extend support for the role of the First Amendment in a free society.”

    John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, said that the purpose of the program was “for students from far and near to engage in dialogue about a First Amendment problem relevant to the times.”

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

    • Winning team ($2,000): Johanna Belford and Fletcher Trammell, South Texas College of Law.

    • Runner-up ($1,000): Brad Moody and Clayton Dabbs, University of Mississippi School of Law.
    • Semi-finalists ($500 per team): Alyson Mathews and Jasmin J. Farhangian, Brooklyn Law School; Joseph P. Bowman and Heather M. Fryman, University of Kentucky College of Law.
    • Best brief ($500): Melissa M. Bean and Kathy Wyer, University of Utah – S.J. Quinney College of Law.
    • Best oralist ($500): Andrew Fausett, American University – Washington College of Law.

    Receiving gavels were:

    • Runner-up best brief: Joseph P. Bowman and Heather M. Fryman, University of Kentucky College of Law.

    • Runner-up best oralist: Kristin Kemerer, Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School.