SUNY Buffalo Law School concluded its annual Desmond Moot Court Competition on Friday, November 2, with a tight and spirited contest in a packed courtroom on the Amherst Campus before an exceptionally distinguished panel of final round judges.
The wheels of justice moved swiftly in the finals of the Charles S. Desmond Moot Court Competition, the Law School's intramural competition for litigators-in-training. A distinguished three-judge panel – consisting of Hon. Eugene F. Pigott Jr. '73, associate justice of the New York State Court of Appeals; Hon. Erin M. Peradotto '84, associate justice of the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Department; and William J. Hochul '84, U.S. Attorney for Western New York – deliberated for just 15 minutes before declaring a winner.
The Desmond competition took place over three days, culminating in the Nov. 3 final round argued in the Francis M. Letro Courtroom. Caitlin Higgins '13 and Kinsey O'Brien '13 were named the victors, besting Phil Modrzynski '13 and Adam Durst '13 in what he judges described as an exceptionally close vote.
Seventeen two-person teams argued the fictitious U.S. Supreme Court case of Bipartisan Legal Advisory Committee et al. v. The Commonwealth of Desmond. The problem – a collaborative effort of Professor George Kannar, faculty adviser to the moot court program, and Corey R. Forster '13, president of the SUNY Buffalo Moot Court Board – involved the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Under the fact pattern, the fictional State of Desmond, which has recognized same-sex marriage since 2004, is threatened with the loss of its federal Medicaid funds because the state's laws draw no distinction between same-sex and opposite-marriages. Litigants argued two questions: whether "heightened scrutiny" must be applied in the case, and whether DOMA violates the Constitution's Spending Clause and Tenth Amendment.
"The heat of the competition was unbelievable," says Forster, who was part of the winning team in last year's competition. "Every round was essentially treated as the final round."
He said 60 or 70 volunteer judges adjudicated the preliminary rounds of the competition, most of them SUNY Buffalo Law alumni.
Forster acknowledged that, as much as organizers try to replicate the atmosphere of a U.S. Supreme Court argument, the mood in the courtroom was lighter than in Washington. Alumni judges especially, he says, are "happy to be back here, happy to see these students, happy to see where they're going to be."
That showed in the final round, in which pointed questioning by the three black-robed justices was interspersed with lighthearted moments. Justice Pigott, for example, playing the role of chief justice, raised the historical situation of the federally imposed 55 mph speed limit, then noted, "Well, you weren't born yet." But just like many of the Supreme Court justices, the final-round judges weren't shy about interrupting the arguments with questions and comments, challenging the litigants to respond in a way that supported their argument while staying unflustered and on message:
Justice Pigott: "What business do the feds have determining that marriage is going to be sanctified?"
Justice Peradotto: "It seems to me that an argument can be made that DOMA actually increases the Medicaid costs for the states and the federal government."
Justice Hochul: "Will you at least agree that the states are not being required to do anything as a result of that law?"
And so on. When it was all over, though, the justices did something else that you'll never see the Supreme Court do: They had kind words for the competitors.
"This was a case where you had a chance to develop your craft, as you're developing your lawyer credentials, to an extent that frankly I haven't seen before," Justice Hochul said. "You guys really are the equivalent of anybody I've ever gone against in the Second Circuit, the D.C. Circuit and other courts of appeals I've appeared in over the years. You handled a very hot bench. … You can leave, whether you won or lost, knowing you really are among the top talent not only in Western New York but any place I've seen on the Eastern Seaboard."
"You all were so incredibly poised," Justice Peradotto said. "You responded to the pounding quite well. Even when you struggled a little bit with one of my questions, you still recovered and got right back into your argument. I see a lot of lawyers in the Appellate Division, and you're as good as any of them."
"Stopping when you get interrupted by a judge is important, and you did it," Justice Pigott said. "Some of the thrust and parry is difficult. I don't think there was a question asked that wasn't answered directly and, if necessary, explained. If it's your natural ability to do that, then you're a star. I have no doubt that you folks are going to do extremely well."
Other awards in the competition included: Best Appellate Brief, Higgins and O'Brien; second place, Modrzynski and Durst; third place, Kevin Yam '14 and Dana Lee '14; an. Best Oral Advocate: Higgins; second place, Phil Meabon '14; third place, Modrzynski.
The next Desmond competition will take place Saturday, Nov. 2, 2018, in O'Brian Hall.