By Laurel Busby
When Palisades High School students formed a Moot Court team three years ago, they wanted to compete against other California high schools, but couldn’t find even one such competition in the state.
So, they organized their own event. Last year, it was held at UCLA, and this year Pepperdine provided space for the competition, which featured 10 teams arguing a case about whether gathering information from a cell phone would qualify as a search under the Fourth Amendment.
Organizing and hosting the competition this year has “been a lot of fun,” said co-president Alicia Abramson, 16, a junior who lives in Pacific Palisades. However, “it’s a lot of work, and it’s pretty stressful too . . . You have to dedicate a lot of time, but in the end, it’s definitely worth it.”
Abramson, who was born in Sweden, worked with the other club members, including co-president Tim Nordahl, to coordinate the event. The competition featured eight rounds that simulated an appeals court case before justices. Unlike mock trial, which Pali also offers, moot court does not include witnesses or the accused. Instead, moot court simulates appellate court cases, which only feature attorneys and justices. “You argue a case as if it were the supreme court of the state or the country,” said fellow club member Eric Halperin. In competitions, moot court participants compete in pairs, so two student attorneys argue a case for the appellant, while two represent the respondent. Four student justices hear the case and ask questions.
For the Pepperdine competition, students judged the merits of the arguments and rated the student attorneys in four categories: knowledge of subject matter, response to questions, forensic skill and courtroom demeanor, plus organization, clarity and logic of arguments. Chief justices (also students) scored the justices on their efforts. PaliHi junior Loren Jacobs and her partner Michael May, from La Cañada High School, won best appellants, while Pali freshmen Caleb Crain and Judy Zhang won best respondents.
As the main event organizer, Abramson didn’t participate, but she and other team members will travel to Princeton in late April to enter another competition, which will have adult attorneys and advisors as judges.
Last year, after joining the team as a sophomore, “I just kind of fell in love with moot court,” said Abramson, who is interested in a career in law and participates in other law-oriented activities, including the YMCA’s Youth & Government program and the L.A. Mayor’s Youth Council. “I enjoy arguing and debating. Moot court is very intellectually stimulating, and I’ve met a lot of really great people.”
Like Abramson, the club’s founder in 2014, Erika Siao, now a freshman at UC Berkeley, fell in love with moot court, but she discovered the activity through the Y’s Youth & Government program during a summer competition.
“I really had a passion for it, but then the summer program ended,” Siao said. “I was riding on that summer competition high” and worked to start a team at Pali.
In the fall, the team now trains by going over the basics of what moot court is and practicing on various cases. For competitions, the case is provided about four to eight weeks ahead of time, and the students research each case by studying applicable case law, reading briefs and then analyzing how to apply what they’ve learned to that particular case.
The club has an advisor, but it is really student run, which means the students not only argue cases, but also manage the fundraising, including selling sweatshirts at the Palisades farmers market and running a Chipotle fundraiser.
Overall, the club raised about $5,300, including $2,300 from the Pali booster club, to cover airfare and lodging for the 10 students traveling to Princeton. The entire club is going, including the previously mentioned current members, plus officer Jake Takakjian, Sierra Margolis, Zachary Garai and Liam Mathers.
Abramson said, “I’m looking forward to the trip. I think it’s going to be a learning experience for all of us and an oppor- tunity to develop our debate and speaking skills further.”
At Princeton, the club will argue a cell phone-related case with similarities to the one they selected in their local competition. The new case revolves around “whether or not a warrantless search of a cell phone through the use of cell-phone site tower simulators is permitted under the Fourth Amendment,” Abramson said. Unlike the previous case, Halperin added that this case considers both common law on trespass and the exclusionary rule, which removes from consideration case evidence that was obtained illegally.
In considering the issues of the case, students must think in a legal manner, which is “a way you aren’t really used to thinking of things,” Halperin said.
“It’s a challenge to come up with arguments very much based in logic and legal proceedings,” added the Brentwood resident. To do well, “you have to have a lot of background knowledge and speak extemporaneously while thinking as logically as you can in your arguments.”