The Supreme Test
May 24, 2013
by Amanda Johnson LAW ’13
With the ring of a gavel and a hearty “Hear ye, hear ye,” a trio of third-year law students faced the ultimate challenge of their nascent legal careers: arguing a case in front of three illustrious judges, including the sitting chief justice of the United States.
On April 4, Lewis & Clark Law School hosted its first annual Advocate of the Year Competition, featuring the law school’s most outstanding environmental law moot court participants of 2012–13. The event was presided over by John G. Roberts, Jr., Chief Justice of the United States; Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; and Judge Anna Brown J.D. ’80, U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.
In front of this distinguished panel—as well as 500 students, faculty, and alumni—third-year students Andrew Erickson, Maggie Hall, and Meredith Price B.A. ’07 put their untold hours of preparation into action. As a team, the three had taken second place in the National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition, which was held in February at Pace Law School in New York. Now they were squaring off against each other.
Robert Klonoff, dean of the law school and professor of law, knows Roberts through work Klonoff did in Washington, D.C., some years ago in the Solicitor General’s Office and then in private practice. In 2011, Roberts appointed Klonoff to be the only academic voting member of the U.S. Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Civil Rules. Roberts, who has a commitment to visit every state while he is chief justice, accepted Klonoff’s invitation last fall to judge the competition.
Since 2002, the school has also hosted Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy (twice), and Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Klonoff believes this is the first time a sitting chief justice has visited an Oregon law school.
“We take moot court very seriously here,” says Craig Johnston J.D. ’85, professor of law and head coach of the environmental law moot court team.
Johnston says the school designed the in-house competition to showcase the school’s top students. He has coached the environmental law moot court team for 22 years—a stretch during which the team has won the Pace Law School national competition 7 times and has advanced to the finals 15 times, beating 72 to 75 other law schools each year. This was the seventh straight year that Lewis & Clark made the finals at Pace. Each year’s team leaves a legacy of excellent advocacy, “one of the things that puts our Environmental Law Program at the top nationally,” says Johnston.
At the end of the competition, Roberts commended the students on their abilities to control the arguments and steer questioning.
Some 36 members of past environmental law moot court teams came back to Lewis & Clark for the event, representing the classes of 1992 through 2012. Many traveled from across the country to support the program. “They are the ones who built the tradition that made this event possible,” Johnston says. He also credits his former co-coach, Professor Don Large, and his current co-coaches, Clinical Professors Allison LaPlante and Dan Mensher, for the long-term success of the program.
For the competition, each student had submitted a 50-page brief on a complex case involving the Clean Water Act (CWA) and undergone 32 grueling practice rounds. Price represented Ultimate Resorts, a developer who dredged and built in a wetland. Erickson represented the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, bringing an action under the CWA against the developer. Hall represented Riverside, a homeowners’ association that also was suing Ultimate Resorts under a citizens’ provision of the CWA.
The case involved complex standing issues and precise statutory interpretation, but the student advocates came well prepared.
And it was a good thing because Roberts threw the students many hypothetical questions: “What if I exposed you to asbestos with a 10-percent chance of mortality … ? What if you were a bank robber and you stole a bunch of money … ? What if you are walking along a wetland and you throw a pinecone in there … ?”
But the students didn’t crack under the pressure. “They have done this so many times,” Johnston says. “They just locked into their ordinary mindset and put aside the fact that it was the chief justice of the United States asking them questions instead of a professor.”
At the end of the competition, Roberts commended the students on their abilities to control the arguments and steer questioning. “This may be our courtroom, but it is your argument,” he said. Roberts had mostly praise for the advocates, observing they were well mannered, poised, and maintained good eye contact. He said he appreciated the direct responses to his questions, even when those questions were not friendly. “There was no wall between advocate and judge.”
O’Scannlain told the advocates that they were among the “top echelon of attorneys that we hear from at oral arguments,” and encouraged them to apply to the bar in the Ninth Circuit.
Brown says the competition and the advocates highlighted the law school community “at its very best.”
“I was so honored to stand in front of all the past competitors,” says Price, who was named Advocate of the Year. “If they hadn’t been as successful as they were, I doubt we could have brought such talented and distinguished judges to this competition.”
Johnston agrees the three students gained valuable experience. “They will never be intimidated,” he says. “They can stand up in front of any court now. It will carry them through in whatever they do.”