The 2021 Van Vleck Moot Court Competition Goes Virtual

Teams appeared before a virtual bench of mock Supreme Court justices as part of the competition’s final round.

Van Vleck Moot Court Competition 2021
From left: Kara Farnandez Stoll, Neomi Rao, Maura McManus, Amanda McDowell, Gregory Maggs, Jennifer Pantell, Raymond Hernandez and Samuel Song. (Photo by: William Atkins/GW Today)
February 01, 2021

By Tatyana Hopkins

Members of the GW Law community tuned in Thursday to watch two advocacy teams argue a fictitious Supreme Court case in the final round of the 2021 Van Vleck Constitutional Law Moot Court Competition. 

Held virtually for the first time in the competition’s 71-year history, the finalist teams argued before a bench including federal appellate Judges Gregory Maggs of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, Neomi Rao of the D.C. Circuit and Kara Farnandez Stoll of the Federal Circuit.

This year’s competition focused on two legal issues authored by student Moot Court Board members, Kevin Coleman and Alexis Mayer, both third-year law students. The problem explored the constitutionality of searching a criminal defendant’s laptop without a warrant as well as allowing the government’s key witness to testify remotely despite having several technical issues.

The mock petitioner, Troy Emswiler, initiated an appeal to overturn a conviction imposed for violating a hypothetical federal anti-corruption statute. U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Miami airport stopped and searched his laptop without a warrant after receiving an anonymous tip that an individual with connections to drug trafficking was flying from Miami to Panama on a specific day. Based on emails found during the search, officers suspected he was involved in a scheme to bribe Panamanian officials and charged him with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The respondent, the United States of America, attempted to uphold the conviction, which was secured in part to the granting of a motion that allowed the key witness to testify virtually after the witness contracted COVID-19.

Each of the participants faced multiple questions from the panel of judges.

The four second-year competitors—Raymond Hernandez and Jennifer Pantell for the petitioner and Maura McManus and Samuel Song for the respondent—argued two issues: first, whether the border search violated Mr. Emswiler’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures; and second, whether the witness’ virtual testimony violated Mr. Emswiler’s Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses.

Ms. McManus and Mr. Song’s appearance marked the first time that a pair of second-year, part-time students made it to the finals of the competition.

The Van Vleck competition is the law school’s largest and longest-running advocacy competition. It is named for the school’s longest-serving dean, William C. Van Vleck, and aims to provide students with the opportunity to hone their oral and written advocacy skills by engaging in mock appellate litigation.

The competition’s final was the culmination of six rounds that began in September, during which each team of two competitors submitted a written brief and presented oral arguments for the side they represented.

Each year, the winning team is presented with the Jacob Burns Award during a ceremony the day before Commencement. 

This year, the judges voted in favor of the pair representing the government for the best overall team. Additionally, Ms. McManus was selected as the best oral advocate for the entire competition.

Prior to announcing the final decision, the judges shared advocacy tips and performance feedback with the students.

Mr. Maggs said the performances exemplified “the greatest characteristics of perfect oral advocates” for other law students as he noted precision, accuracy and engagement among some of the qualities presented by the finalists.

Ms. Rao agreed, saying that the participants’ confidence and ability after questions to “naturally go back to the narrative [they] were presenting” increased their credibility on the challenging issues presented by the case problem.

Ms. Stoll said all of the participants were winners, noting that their skills were already comparable to professional lawyers who appear before her in court.

“Whenever you participate in something like this you are winning,” she said. “You are inevitably making yourself a better lawyer by participating in these kinds of competitions. Each time you wrote your briefs, each time you argued, you inevitably learn new skills…so that you can be in a better position to be a better advocate for real clients and real cases.”

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The auditorium’s stage was transformed into the Supreme Court for the competition’s final round.