It’s a classic underdog scenario: For the first time in its short three-year history, a team from San Francisco State University’s Moot Court Club is headed to the national moot court tournament, where the students will compete against roughly 80 teams, most of them more seasoned teams and some from elite private colleges. Will their experience be like “Rocky” or just plain rocky? They’ll find out soon.
The team of two — Aaron Gamez and Owen Nelson — will head to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, January 17 for the American Moot Court Association National Tournament. The pair, who graduated in December, qualified for the tournament after finishing in the top six at the Fresno regional competition in November. That’s no easy feat, says San Francisco State Assistant Professor of Political Science Nick Conway, the club’s founder and coach.
“You basically have to be better than 84 percent of the field,” he said. “For a point of comparison, the NCAA Division I basketball tournament is statistically easier to qualify for.”
Despite its relative infancy, SF State’s team has turned heads, says Nelson, the club’s president. Last year, they took everyone by surprise by winning the national competition for brief writing, the written component of the legal argument, he adds. They’re a dark horse, Nelson admits, but he’s optimistic. “This is a national competition, so there are no bad teams,” he said. “I do not think it will be an easy path forward, but by no means will it be unachievable.”
What makes the SF State team strong is the coaching they received from Conway, Gamez says. “He really lays down a bedrock from day one that we are going to learn the law, and we are going to learn it better than the other teams,” he said.
Before tournaments, case problems — fictitious complaints that challenge the constitutionality of previous rulings — are released to teams. Last year’s case problem for nationals dealt with a woman’s alleged violations to her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The woman, an employee of the fictitious Olympus State University School of Law, argued that the school gave preferential weight to male applicants, a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, and when she voiced a complaint she was fired over this, which she claimed infringed upon her right of freedom of expression.
After case problems are released teams have time to study the legal issues, prepare their arguments and refine them in practice. They’re judged on the strength of their argument and their delivery.
SF State’s team typically meets several times a week before tournaments. At practice, Conway plays judge. He’ll fire off questions, probing for weak spot in their arguments. “I really make their lives hard,” he said. But it’s all to ensure students have strong, logical arguments rooted in the law. At competitions, there’s no telling what questions judges will ask.
Whether they win or lose at nationals, Gamez and Nelson will have left SF State with invaluable training, they say. “These are skills that are transferable everywhere,” Gamez explained. “Anything you go on to do, you're going to need to be able to speak and think rationally.”
Gamez, who studied Criminal Justice, plans to enter the California Highway Patrol academy in February. Nelson, a Political Science major, plans to work for a year before attending law school. In fact, most undergraduates join moot court because they have their sights set on law school, says Conway, who is an attorney himself. While in law school, he noticed that students involved in moot court outshined their peers.
“Students who have gone to tournaments and argued cases, their communicative skills and persuasive skills are just light years ahead of someone who has not,” he said. “That’s an important thing, because we have a lot of students at SF State who are first generation college students. They might not have anyone in their family who’s gone to law school, who can talk about it or show them the ropes.”
That was true for Gamez. He’s the first in his family to go to college, and even though he’s going into law enforcement, moot court exposed him to new possibilities. “I went to college right after high school, but I couldn’t afford to keep going, so I dropped out, got a job and ended up joining the Marines,” he said. “A lot of people I grew up with aren’t doing so well. I never thought I’d be in a position to do stuff like this when I was younger, so this is really cool.”
— Jamie Oppenheim