Imagine that a professor at a publicly funded law school facilitates a chatroom conversation that leads to a plot to assassinate the president of the United States. His arrest and subsequent conviction raise compelling constitutional questions.
First, was his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures violated when the Internet provider turned over the chatroom conversations without his consent? Second, does the First Amendment protect speech that threatens the life of the president?
These were the questions debated last November at an intercollegiate moot court tournament, where a pair of Wheaton students qualified for the nationals and another won an individual speaker award. With the guidance of Jenna Lukasik, assistant professor of political science, students formed the Wheaton moot court club in September. The regional contest was their first competitive foray.
During a moot court session, participants present oral arguments in mock Supreme Court trials. The Wheaton club sent three teams to compete against 45 others at the Eastern Regional Tournament of the American Collegiate Moot Court Association, held at Fitchburg State University on November 18 and 19. Brian Jencunas ’14 placed fifth overall for his individual arguments, while the team of Kristin Mulvey ’14 and Matthew Ossiander ’12 earned a trip to the national tournament in Orange, Calif., in January.
Each team that competes in a tournament must prepare and present both sides of the case, Mulvey says. The mock litigators are judged not only on the strength of their arguments and their responses to judges’ questions, but also on forensic skills such as pace, body language and eye contact.
Mulvey, who participated in debate and mock trials in high school, says she has always wanted to be a lawyer, but at Wheaton she has gravitated toward theater and history, which is her passion.
“I love moot court, because you have to know previous cases and use precedents and the Constitution to determine what is right in our modern-day society,” she says. “I think it shows how important history is in our everyday lives.”
Ossiander, an art history major, says he got involved with the club because he has always enjoyed learning about the Supreme Court. “When I saw one of the campus flyers promoting the club, I jumped on the opportunity to try something new my senior year,” he says. “For me, it is fun in the geekiest way possible.”
To prepare for the regional competition, the students met once a week with Lukasik and also did a dry run on campus for Constitution Day in September. Judges at that event included Provost Linda Eisenmann and Stephen Ostrach, a trial court justice.
For the national competition, Ossiander and Mulvey met with Lukasik via Skype to prepare their arguments and outlines, Ossiander says. “Kristin and I continued to practice for several hours a day at the competition, bouncing feedback off one another.”
Although they competed against more experienced students, including some who had completed upper-level courses in moot court, the Wheaton team won one of its rounds.
“The national competition was a great experience,” says Ossiander. “Besides, who wouldn’t want to jet to Southern California for a few days in January?”
No debate there.
Photo by Charles Wang ’15