PHOTO COURTESY OF COOLEY LAW SCHOOL
by Cynthia Price
There was plenty of competition for Thomas M. Cooley Law School student Anna White at the 2011 Constance Baker Motley Moot Court Competition in Constitutional Law March 11-13.
Other law schools sent their very best, and there were no fewer than 43 students vying for the title of Best Oral Advocate.
But White beat them all.
The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy holds the competition each year. Two regional competitions feed into one at the national level, and White earned her title at the recent regional competition held in Los Angeles at UCLA.
The competition is named after Constance Baker Motley, an African-American attorney who attained many “firsts” during her career: she was the first African-American woman elected to the New York State Senate and the first female Manhattan Borough President. In 1966, she was the first African-American woman to be appointed to the federal judiciary when Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the Southern District of New York; later she broke ground again when she served as Chief Judge.
In the competition, teams of two law school students compete against each other. Teams’ advancement in the competition is based on their win-loss record.
White says that the first day there are three rounds, and she and teammate Steven Milks made it through those to the Day 2 semi-finals, where they were ultimately eliminated.
However, the Best Oral Advocate Award is based on judges’ separate scoring of each individual competing.
White says she found all aspects of the competition enjoyable, especially the opportunity to test her skills at oral argument. “It’s nice to be up there and really be under fire when you’ve had a chance to really get to know your subject,” she said.
There is also a social aspect which White says was “a lot of fun.” The first evening there is a banquet and an opportunity to get to know members of other teams. White had competed in 2010 as well, so she was used to the routine: between the three rounds on March 12 competitors were served food and could again chat, but, White said, “Everyone’s a little more nervous so there’s not as much socializing.”
The hypothetical case to be argued centers each year around constitutional issues — in 2011, First Amendment rights. In the fictional State of East Carolina, et al., v. Americans United for Marriage Equality, et al., the state filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which was granted by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the questions to be briefed and argued were, to quote from the competition:
“1. Whether an organization and its members have standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution to bring a First Amendment challenge to a state statute authorizing the issuance of a special license plate displaying a particular message, when there is no comparable plate displaying the message favored by the organization.
“2. Whether the state government engaged in impermissible viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment when it passed a statute authorizing the issuance of a special license plate displaying a particular message.”
The state had refused to issue a specialty license plate for Americans United for Marriage Equality.
In the competition rounds, each team member takes a different aspect of the hypothetical problem — in this case Milks took the standing issue and White the set of issues in item 2. Each team then argues either on behalf of the petitioner, or on behalf of the respondents, against a team which has split up the issues the same way but argues on behalf of the opposing party. White said that teams could be called on to switch as far as the parties they represent, or they might represent the same party each time, according to the luck of the draw. She commented, “Steve was a great partner.”
As far as “her” segment of the problem, White states, “It comes down to an issue of whether it’s government speech or private speech, and what test you should use to determine that. Free speech is one of our foundational rights as citizens – but there is an issue about whether or not the state was speaking for itself or had opened up a forum and was preventing the organization from expressing itself.”
White cannot say enough about her coach for the event, Cooley’s Curt Benson. “He did a wonderful job; he was fabulous with help during the competition and before.”
It is telling that White, who currently lives in Zeeland with her husband, majored in social work when she received her undergraduate degree from Hope College. A graduate of Grand Rapids City High School, White went on to practice in social work at Holland’s Center for Women in Transition.
The Center offers programs to and advocates on behalf of “the victims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and ... women facing other difficult challenges.”
Says White, “I got involved with legal advocacy for my last couple of years there, and became familiar with not just the criminal justice system but with some of the needs of the clients that seemed to require professional legal assistance. So I said to myself, I think I could do that!”
Her recognition appears to be an indication that she can indeed.
Commented Evelyn Tombers, an associate professor at Cooley Law School who oversaw the team preparation, ““Anna has raw talent that she’s molded into a skill recognized by the judges in Los Angeles. Her success is the result of months of hard work, preparation and practice.”
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