November 15, 2016

SVSU team makes the case, wins moot court competition, and headed to nationals

Seven months of determined preparation for a team of two Saginaw Valley State University students resulted in winning a regional moot court competition in Chicago. The win earned teammates Connor Hughes and Madison Laskowski an invitation to the national tournament in Gulfport, Florida in January 2017.

In a moot court competition, students act as attorneys in teams of two. They make arguments to a panel of judges by drawing from constitutional law and Supreme Court cases. Judges then decide winners based on public speaking ability, knowledge of cases and of law, and the ability to answer questions.

In May, competitors received an informational packet containing court documents and rulings related to the case. Hughes and Laskowski immediately began readying for the November tournament when the packet arrived seven months earlier. Julie Keil, assistant professor of political science and advisor to SVSU’s moot court program, said the pair devoted five to 10 hours each week studying and preparing.

“It’s been a huge time commitment for them,” she said. “They know the case; they are hard to shake on the facts, and that really showed.”

Despite several impressive showings over the years and a national top 20 ranking, SVSU’s victory marked the first time a team from the university won an American Moot Court Association regional tournament. Hughes, a political science major from Howell, and Laskowski, a political science major from Bay City, will extend SVSU’s impressive streak of earning berths to the national contest, where they will be among 80 teams competing.

The current uninterrupted run spans the entirety of the 6-year-old SVSU moot court program’s existence.

“That’s not common,” Keil said. “There are a number of teams that are always very competitive, but they aren’t in the nationals every year like this. This says a lot about our students.”

More than 350 colleges and universities field American Moot Court Association teams. During the regional tournament, Hughes and Laskowski outperformed accomplished programs from institutions such as California State University-Long Beach, the College of Wooster, George Washington University, the University of Chicago, the University of Texas-Dallas, and Loyola University Chicago, which hosted the competition Nov. 11-12.

Another SVSU team of Alexander Partridge, a history major from Vassar, and Jaclyn Zembrodt, a political science major from Walton, Kentucky; placed 13th in the 19-team contest.

“They were all so impressive,” Keil said of her two teams. “They worked very hard on this, together, for months.”

Each year, American Moot Court Association organizers create a single fictional U.S. Supreme Court case — often based on actual cases heard in lower courts — that competitors must address when participating in the regional and national tournaments.

This year’s case study concerns voter rights. The case specifically deals with a citizen who divorced her husband, changed her name but did not update her ID documents in time for the election. As a result, clerk employees did not allow the citizen to vote because her ID did not match the voting registry.

“The timing on that was funny,” Keil said, noting that the national presidential election and subsequent voter rights concerns made headlines during the same week as the Chicago tournament.

Keil said SVSU’s success — and the moot court program’s culture of excellence — is fueled by a proud network of supportive faculty and alumni. Among Keil’s assistant advisors this year are former SVSU President Eric Gilbertson, a constitutional scholar who now serves as the university’s executive in residence; Amy Hendrickson, SVSU assistant professor of law; as well as SVSU graduates and former moot court members Mark Babcock and Jacob Mojica.

“None of these people get paid to help our students,” Keil said. “They’re doing it because they care. It’s a network, and it’s a culture of belief that we are capable of succeeding at any level.”

Keil said additional SVSU students may earn invitations to the national tournament. Six more teams from the university will compete in a American Moot Court Association regional tournament hosted by SVSU Dec. 2-3.