By Matt Michaloski ‘14
Four Wabash men sat confidently on stage Tuesday October 23rd in Salter Hall, ready to argue a case before Wabash’s version of the Supreme Court. A panel of four judges sat across from them, ready to scrutinize their arguments and challenge their claims. Joining them was a large audience of students, faculty, alumni, and visitors from Indianapolis’s Lawrence North High School. Such was the setting for the final round of the Nineteenth Annual Wabash College Moot Court Competition. And though it was a moot proceeding, the finalists argued their cases with the same preparedness and dedication one might expect from men who were actually present before the highest court in the land.
This year’s case concerned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Passed in 1996, DOMA defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman for the purpose of allocating federal benefits. Echoing many actual lawsuits, the Moot Court hypothetical focused on the claims of multiple same-sex married couples who sued the federal government for denying equal rights, and their suit was upheld in both the district court and the US Court of Appeals. A critical component of the case was whether or not the government could prove a “rational basis” for having the law and, also, whether the law should be subject to a higher level of judicial scrutiny. Representing the government, seniors Michael Carper ’13 and Alex Robbins ’13 defended DOMA. Senior Riley Floyd ’13 and sophomore Andrew Dettmer ’15 represented the plaintiffs, challenging the constitutionality of the act. The panel of judges included Hon. John G. Baker, Hon. Denise K. LaRue, Hon. David Ault ’70, and Political Science Chair Dr. Melissa Butler H’85. The issue was divided into two separate arguments: the challenge the law presents to equal protection and the challenge it presents to federalism. The contest involved each participant arguing one element of his client’s two-pronged case.
Dr. Himsel of the Political Science Department introduced the Judges to the audience. He was followed by Dr. McDorman of the Rhetoric Department, who summarized this year’s competition and introduced each finalist. The event began with Michael Carper stepping up to the podium to argue that DOMA does not deny the equal protection guaranteed citizens under the fourteenth amendment. He reminded the judges that same-sex couples are not considered a suspect class and argued that the government had a public interest in promoting (via tax incentives) the union of conventional married couples because of their potential for procreation. Thus the act is not meant to be punitive or discouraging towards same-sex couples but rather to limit the allocation of its scarce benefits to those whom it can encourage to pursue childbirth.
Next, Alex Robbins defended the government on the grounds that DOMA does not violate states’ rights. His main arguments involved the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution and the Federal Government’s right to define who is eligible to receive benefits from its own programs. He reiterated that the federal government has an incentive to encourage conventional marriages and increase the potentiality of childbirth, which is the government’s main interest in the law – not defining marriage, which states are still free to do.
After Robbins concluded, it was time to hear the arguments on behalf of the Dwight plaintiffs who challenged the law. Riley Floyd argued that the law does in fact violate equal protection. He argued the government has not proven any permissible interest in denying benefits to same-sex couples and put forth that same-sex couples are free to adopt children. He also argued that denying benefits to same-sex couples does not reinforce heterosexual marriages in any way even though it comes at the cost of discrepant treatment towards gay couples. He concluded that the government has an impermissible “moral standard goal” behind defending the legislation rather than a legitimate public interest. The final contestant, Andrew Dettmer, attacked DOMA for violating states’ rights. He countered Robbins’ argument of the Supremacy Clause with the 10th Amendment and reminded the judges that there was court precedent for allowing the states to regulate “domestic relations.”
The judges were prone to interrupt during each contestant’s speech and asked many difficult questions that frequently caused the advocates to have to momentarily pause and to think carefully about how to proceed. In this observer’s opinion the judges were quite menacing, and there could be no doubt after their scrutiny that the contestants had a more than substantial understanding of the topic. Though they were tough, one should expect no less from a school that prides itself on thinking critically.
After an exciting hour of learned jargon, impressive legal knowledge, and Wabash-quality critical thinking, the finalists rested while the judges convened to select a winner. The audience was left to chatter and let all the action sink in, at which time Mr. Jon Pactor ’71 – himself a successful lawyer in Indianapolis – came by to have a conversation and told me that he was extremely impressed not only with the content of the students’ arguments but with their style and poise as well. I can only pretend to have represented the contestants’ mastery of the subject accurately (I myself am not very legal-minded), but it was evident from the reaction of the judges, faculty, and others that their performance was impressive.
The judges returned, and Hon. John G. Baker announced that senior English major Riley Floyd had been chosen as this year’s winner on account of both his preparation and his presentation. All of the finalists were lauded for their participation.