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A Supreme Victory
February 06, 2012
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan anchors bench in final round of Law School’s Van Vleck Competition.
By Jamie L. Freedman
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan anchored the bench Feb. 2 for the finals of GW’s 62nd annual Jacob Burns Van Vleck Constitutional Law Moot Court Competition.
Lisner Auditorium was transformed into a courtroom for the contest, as the Law School’s top oral advocacy teams argued a fictitious case before a distinguished panel of justices composed of Justice Kagan, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit Judge Harris Hartz and Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente, J.D. ’73.
Justice Kagan’s appearance marked the fifth time in seven years that a U.S. Supreme Court justice has presided over GW’s largest and longest-running advocacy contest. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor (prior to her appointment to the high court) judged the competition in 2006, followed by Associate Justice Samuel Alito in 2007 and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia in 2009.
Arguments focused on a modern legal problem penned by last year’s Van Vleck champions—third-year law students Jonathan Maier and Sean Sherman. The case, Prentice v. Patel, centered on the constitutionality of a mock international treaty that banned burning or destroying religious artifacts outside of religious institutions during prayer hours. The petitioner’s suit alleged that the treaty violated the First and 10th Amendments of the Constitution.
The four competitors—third-year law students Tyler Evans and Matthew Radler for the petitioner and Devin Anderson and Samuel Cowin for the respondent—skillfully tackled the battery of tough questions fired at them by the judges. In a split decision, the judges voted 2-1 in favor of the respondents.
“You were all marvelous,” Justice Kagan told the competitors before announcing the winners. “Your briefs and your arguments were excellent. Your oral advocacy skills are very high. You were unflappable and poised. Congratulations to all of you.”
“The advocates today were just terrific,” concurred Judge Hartz. “There are no losers. It is wonderful to be here to see the appellate stars of the future.”
Commending the competitors for their “high levels of professionalism and preparation” and “superb advocacy,” Judge Pariente said, “You became world experts on this case.” The judge, who graduated fifth in her class at GW Law School, also praised her alma mater, stating, “I have always been proud of the professionalism and high level of intellectual pursuit of this Law School.”
Prior to revealing the final decision, the judges shared a few oral advocacy tips with the students. “The most important thing is to view questions as opportunities,” Justice Kagan said. She also emphasized that briefs should be written in “crystal clear, smooth, easy-to-understand prose.”
The Van Vleck championship was the culminating event of a five-month, multiple-round competition featuring 113 competitors—the second largest group of participants in GW history. To earn a berth in the finals, the championship teams advanced through a series of preliminary, sweet 16, quarterfinal, and semifinal rounds, logging hundreds of hours of brief writing, research and oral argument practice along the way. The winning team members will receive the coveted Jacob Burns Award during Commencement weekend.