Special Section: Taking the Bench


Dispatches from a reporter behind the scenes with the 2005 Ames Moot Court finalists

Eight days away

Joshua Hurwit '06 stands at a lectern, facing four classmates. They stare down at him from rolling chairs on the elevated bench of stately Ames Courtroom. In eight days, on Nov. 17, 2005, Hurwit will stand here again, but instead of his friends, he'll face U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter '66 and Judges Emilio Garza and Ilana Rovner of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals--the judges who will decide the winners of the 2005 Ames Moot Court Finals.

Kathleen Dooher

A petitioners' jam session (from left): Nathan Kitchens '06, Andrew Cooper '06, Jason Vollbracht '06, Joshua Hurwit '06, Jordan Heller '06

Hurwit and his five teammates have spent nearly a thousand hours researching and writing about the hypothetical case McNeil v. Lu, involving the constitutionality of a juvenile curfew law (see sidebar). They held their first meeting before classes even started in September; they submitted over 50 pages of briefs; and they've left 30 other teams in their wake to make it to the finals. All this work will culminate in oral arguments on a Thursday night--eight days away--when Hurwit, Bryce Callahan '06 (the team's other oralist) and the two oralists for the respondent team will stand before the panel of judges, a packed Ames Courtroom and crowds in two overflow rooms.

Tonight, standing in jeans and sneakers, Hurwit struggles to finish his first timed run-through behind the lectern. He will argue their state action claim, which alleges that an amusement park was acting for the state when it detained two minors for curfew infractions, in violation of their civil rights.

When he finishes the run-through, the team critiques the substance of his arguments about summary judgment and the coercive effects of the statute. They also critique his style. He should stand up, speak more loudly and make eye contact with all of the judges, rather than just the one who asks questions.

"Should we do another run-through?" asks Nathan Kitchens '06 from the bench. "We've got 20 more minutes."

Six days

The respondents gather in Ames Courtroom on Friday night. It's their first time practicing oral arguments as a full team. Adam Harber '06, the first oralist, stands at the lectern. He'll defend the legitimacy of the curfew law while the other oralist, Christopher Szczerban '06, will answer the state action argument.

"May it please the court, my name is Adam Harber," he begins. He's tall and he gestures like John Kerry. "Along with my co-counsel--"

He stops suddenly.

"Wait--does anybody remember if I introduce all of you guys or just Chris?" he asks, sounding like a student again.

Just Szczerban, they tell him. Harber nods and again assumes the posture of an orator discussing legal precedents.

"Is this framework really workable?" interrupts Joshua Salzman '06 a few minutes later. "As Justice Souter here, I wasn't really comfortable with that framework."

Harber backtracks and tries to argue his way out of the challenge, but his teammates keep pushing him on nearly every point--his description of the right to free movement, the foundations of the right and hypothetical situations that undercut the petitioners' claims.

"I've been going for like 45 minutes," he says after a circuitous round of questions. On Thursday, he'll have less than 20.

Szczerban takes the lectern next, and after a half hour, they're ready to break for the night. But they'll be back. The next day--Saturday--their shift in Ames Courtroom will begin at 10:00 a.m.

Back story

The Ames Moot Court competition is a nearly century-old tradition at HLS, started in 1911 through a bequest from Dean James Barr Ames LL.B. 1873. Since 1912, the names of finalists have been memorialized on bronze plaques in Langdell Library--including Harry Blackmun LL.B. '32, University of Chicago Law Professor Cass Sunstein '78 and Harvard Law Professor Guhan Subramanian '98. Previous competitions have brought a stream of "Supremes" to campus, including former Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg '56-'58.

The two finalist teams this year have histories of their own. Seven of the 12 were in the same 1L section; one petitioner and one of the respondents are roommates; and both teams have been working to get to the finals for nearly a year and a half.

The process began during their 2L year in qualifying and semifinal rounds, but it kicked up a notch at the beginning of their 3L year in preparing briefs for the finals.

Petitioners say they worked nearly around the clock the final 48 hours before a deadline.

"It's painful, but it also becomes surreal," recalls Jordan Heller '06, remembering the all-nighters and "war room" environment. "The levels of inside jokes and ridiculousness, the junk food that's consumed--"

"It's fun in its own special way," Andrew Cooper '06 agrees.

Respondents experienced a similar rite of passage writing their brief.

"The night before, we were up all night," says Harber.

"And the night before that," adds Ramin Tohidi '06.

"It was basically different shifts of when people were awake and working on things," says Szczerban.

They remember it as a delirious week not without its upsides.

"I wouldn't trade it for anything. We've become good friends over this," Tohidi says. "It's worth it, given that two of us get to argue before a Supreme Court justice."

The final week focuses on preparing the speakers, who were picked by their teammates. The petitioners' oralists will have two additional hurdles. Hurwit, who will speak second, has never competed as an oralist before. And Callahan has an unusual complication: His wife is 39 weeks pregnant. His teammates are well aware that the likelihood she'll go into labor on or before Thursday increases with every passing day.

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