Courting Victory

February 06, 2011

GW Law School’s top oral advocates go head to head in final round of Van Vleck Competition.

By Jamie L. Freedman

GW’s Betts Theatre was transformed into a courtroom Feb. 3 as the Law School’s top oral advocacy teams argued a fictitious case before U.S. Court of Appeals Judges Joseph A. Greenaway Jr., Barbara Milano Keenan and Leslie H. Southwick in the final round of the 61st annual Jacob Burns Van Vleck Constitutional Law Moot Court Competition.

The Betts Theatre was packed for the popular advocacy contest, focusing on a modern legal problem penned by GW Law students Chris Healey, Erik Benny and Julie Fleischman. The four competitors—Jonathan Maier and Sean Sherman for the petitioner and Alexander Hastings and Ha-Thanh Nguyen for the respondent—presented arguments and tackled a battery of tough questions fired at them by the judges.

The case, Sturges Production Inc. v. Rushab Sanghvi, centered on a California-based film production company, Sturges, that has lost the majority of its work in the state of “New Columbia” because it does not meet the requirements of a new production tax credit program benefiting in-state companies. Sturges’ suit alleged that tax credit was unconstitutional.

Each team had 30 minutes to present arguments, running the gamut from whether or not the tax credit discriminated against interstate commerce to whether constitutional protections should extend to corporations, not just citizens. The judges questioned each student advocate for 15 minutes on complex issues ranging from whether the credit was, in fact, a tax credit or a subsidy to whether a less discriminatory alternative existed.

In the end, the petitioners emerged victorious. “I’m glad to say that most of the decisions we face in court are not as difficult as deciding which was the better team today,” said Judge Southwick of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, who served as chief justice at the competition.

After announcing the winners, the judges congratulated the finalists and authors of the problem on a first-class job and offered them advice on perfecting their oral advocacy technique.

“You were all wonderfully professional and took the high road, which was very much appreciated,” said Judge Keenan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. “The quality of the arguments was excellent, and all of you deserve a strong commendation for the talent and hard work that was on display today.”

Judge Greenaway of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit presented individual critiques to each of the competitors. “Congratulations to all four of you,” he concluded. “You had three longtime judges asking you some really pointed questions, and you did a very nice job.”

Prior to making it to the championship round of the Van Vleck competition, the competitors advanced through the preliminary, Sweet 16, quarterfinal, and semifinal rounds, logging hundreds of hours of brief writing, research and oral argument practice along the way. This year’s competition, which began in September, drew 112 competitors—the second largest group of participants in GW history.

The Law School’s largest and longest-running advocacy contest, Van Vleck has a longstanding tradition of attracting top students and high-profile judges. Over the past six years, three Supreme Court justices—John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia—have presided over the final round of the competition.

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61st annual Jacob Burns Van Vleck Constitutional Law Moot Court Competition