It's not every day that Baylor Law students get to present oral arguments to a former U.S. Solicitor General, three Texas Supreme Court justices and a former justice of the Texas Third Court of Appeals but that is exactly what happened to Blayne Thompson, Derik Scott, Hunter Oliver and Harrison Powers. The four were the finalists in Baylor Law School's M.D. Anderson Foundation Moot Court Competition and delivered their arguments to what has to be one of the most distinguished judges' panel for a law school competition.
Baylor President Ken Starr; Justices Nathan Hecht, Dale Wainwright and Don Willett of the Texas Supreme Court; and Justice Jan Patterson, formerly of the Texas Third Court of Appeals, presided at the finals. They were joined by current Baylor Law students Matt Czimskey and Matt Smith, winners of Baylor Law's fall 2010 Dawson & Sodd Moot Court Competition. When the judges returned their decision, Thompson and Scott emerged as the winner in a close 4-3 vote.
"I was so grateful to be given the opportunity to just be in the same room as the panel, let alone actually meet them and deliver a case to them," Scott said. "It was a wonderfully pleasant occurrence to meet the panel beforehand. Every single one of the judges was personable and it felt almost easier to talk to them than it should have been."
Thompson agreed, saying, "What an opportunity for a first-year law student to get to argue before such a distinguished and experienced panel. It was extremely generous of each of them to take the time out of their busy schedules to take part in this with us. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
The M.D. Anderson Foundation Moot Court Competition, an internal competition for Baylor Law students, began almost a month ago. Sixty-nine teams entered the competition. Students from the Appellate Advocacy Course are required to participate, but many upper classmen also choose to compete. All four of the finalists began law school in fall 2010.
"This was my first moot court experience and I fell in love with it. I have try-outs (for interscholastic competition teams) this evening so I'm hoping to continue participating in moot court at Baylor this fall," Powers said.
During the competition, the participants argued a problem that involved 4th and 5th amendment issues. In the problem, a defendant already suspected of murder was arrested on suspicion of a Mann Act violation. The question was whether the searching of his vehicle without a warrant was illegal given that he had no opportunity to destroy any evidence and given that the evidence -- the contents of a digital phone -- had no apparent connection with the crime for which the defendant was arrested. Other issues arose regarding why the police did not obtain a warrant and whether the evidence could be suppressed.
The defendant also had been subjected to a high-tech test that detects brain waves to determine whether the defendant had experiential knowledge of the murder., bypassing a lie-detector test. Students considered in their arguments whether this procedure was testimonial in nature and hence a violation of the defendant's right against self-incrimination given that no Miranda warnings had been given.
"I felt like the most difficult part of the entire competition was feeling so strongly on one side of the issue and then having to switch to the opposing side the next day. It was, however, certainly helpful to fully understand each side in order to know where the weaknesses of the argument are," Scott said.
The judges bombarded the advocates with questions throughout the final round.
"I thought the most challenging aspect of the finals was adapting to the dynamic range of questions from all of the judges," Oliver said. "While the arguments throughout most of the competition proceeded in a linear organization, most of the judges already had questions in mind from every angle of the issue."
As for the critiques the judges gave, each competitor took a different piece of advice to heart.
"Perhaps the best overarching advice I received is to treat this like a conversation. It is difficult when you're in the courtroom setting, especially when the judges are firing difficult questions at you, but if you can try to think of everyone gathered around the dinner table talking, then it becomes much easier to drop the speech-like discourse and really relate to someone," Thompson said.
"I will remember their suggestion that sometimes the most persuasive thing to do is to concede a point. It wouldn't have occurred to me that making a concession in front of such a demanding panel would be persuasive," Powers said.
"A few of the justices commented on how an advocate should welcome questions as an opportunity to resolve ambiguities rather than perceiving them as merely attacks on an argument. I appreciated this advice as it seems to depict the advocacy role as more of an educational discussion than simply a hostile environment," Oliver said.
"The piece of advice that I most appreciated and took to heart was when they noted how impressed they were with the specific cites to the record," Scott said. "Also President Starr talked about how to be as persuasive as possible you should take conversational tone. That was the most often reiterated piece of advice, was to approach the oral argument as a conversation. The other piece of advice that I really focused on was when Justice Wainwright discussed specifically that he can tell when the panel asked a question and it wasn't answered. He said that make sure you understand the question and be sure to answer it."
At the end of the competition, the Top 10 speakers from all rounds also were named. They were Morgan Harkins, Leah Maxwell, Adam Arrington, Taylor Romero, Bri Turner, Katelyn Ridenour, Hunter Polvi, Michael Alexander, Alice Warburton and Oliver.
Thompson received his undergraduate degree from Texas A&M. Scott, a native of St. Louis, earned an MBA from Lindenwood University before beginning law school. Oliver graduated from Baylor with a B.A. in international studies with an emphasis in Middle East studies. Powers went to the University of Texas at Austin and majored in Plan II and English and minored in classics.
The M.D. Anderson Foundation of Houston has been a longtime, generous supporter of Baylor Law School, underwriting the main reading room in the library at the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center and providing substantial funds for the expansion of Morrison Constitution Hall, the law school's former home. The Anderson Foundation also has provided generous support over many years to the Law School's interscholastic advocacy program and the faculty research fund, supplying grants for law school faculty members engaging in research.