The Moot Court Final Four

By Alexander Zaitchik

Spring 2012

On an unusually temperate Monday afternoon in early March, under the watch of uniformed and plainclothes security details that signaled the presence of federal judges, more than 200 students and observers entered Jerome Greene Hall, checked their bags, and dutifully formed a line. They were there to watch the Harlan Fiske Stone Moot Court competition’s final arguments, and a little after 4 p.m., the auditorium-sized room used to host the event had reached near capacity. As is the case each spring, interest was high in Columbia Law School’s version of the Final Four, in which the Stone Moot Court finalists go before a panel of three sitting judges to deliver arguments on a set of legal problems they had been wrestling with since October.

For the 87th edition of the competition, the difficult hypothetical case of United States v. McClain served as a foundation for all that followed. Judges at every stage of the competition have agreed that the case presented an especially challenging fact pattern—a mix of thorny legal questions related to federal liability for obstruction of justice and computer fraud. Sitting close to the front on the room were the competition’s proud organizers: student director Michael M. Rosenberg ’12, who devised this year’s problem, and Professor Philip Genty, a 23-year veteran of the Law School faculty who serves as director of the Moot Court Program.

After everyone in the audience rose for the entrance of this year’s eminent panel of judges, it fell to William R. Rollins ’12 to open the proceedings for the appellant. Immediately Rollins (as well as those gathered) learned a very important lesson: Always comply with the rules regarding the style and format of written briefs. Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit Alex Kozinski informed Rollins and his fellow participants that submissions must be written in 14-point font. (“The 9th Circuit would have bounced this brief,” Kozinski said to laughter.) Joining Kozinski, and rounding out the esteemed panel, were Judge Reena Raggi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit and Judge Joseph A. Greenaway Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. 

Once the real questioning began, Rollins fared well and found that he truly enjoyed the challenge. “I don’t think Judge Kozinski was exaggerating when he said that the panel didn’t pull any punches,” Rollins notes. “But I don’t think you can put a price on an experience that forces you to defend your position to some of the top legal minds in the country in front of a large audience that includes your family, friends, peers, and professors. It forced me to focus under a type of pressure that I had never quite encountered before, and it was incredibly rewarding.”

Counsel for the appellee J. Matthew Schmitten ’13 followed Rollins at the podium. Schmitten spent much of his time sparring with the judges over the role of a nexus requirement in the charges against his client. As with all of the exchanges that afternoon, the conversation was pointed. “There was nothing in the four rounds leading up to the final that would have prepared any of us for it,” he says. At one point, Kozinski bluntly told Schmitten, “I didn’t understand that argument at all.” But the second-year student not only recovered his own fumble, he went on to win the Lawrence S. Greenbaum Prize for the best oral presentation. (Schmitten also won the prize for best written brief.)

Next up was Rollins’ co-counsel, Robert M. Bernstein ’13, who had his own pointed exchange with the judges over the strength of the government’s case. Bernstein later said he would gladly do it all over again. “Arguing in the finals was a thrilling experience, and I’m sure it’ll be the highlight of my time at Columbia,” he says.

Wrapping up the government’s case against McClain, Kelly N. Sampson ’12 argued that there was sufficient evidence to prove the defendant illegally accessed a computer for the purposes of material theft. The judges were not so sure and applied sustained questioning to the claims of evidence. But like her fellow finalists, Sampson maintained her ground with confidence and demonstrated a mastery of the material. “I thought the finals were really a test of being able to stay cool under pressure,” she says. “The panel was relentless, and it was fun to try to rise to that challenge. I learned a lot.”

Along with being good entertainment, the finals served as a recruiting tool for next year’s Harlan Fiske Stone Moot Court competition. Sprinkled throughout the audience were many first-year students taking notes and imagining their own future moot court glory. “I would have been very nervous up there, and I think it’s really admirable the way they all performed,” said Greg Wolfe ’14, who plans to compete next year. “Watching this, I was thinking that it’s probably the best learning experience you can have in law school.”