By Matthew Michaloski ’14
Students, faculty, alumni, and guests gathered in Salter Hall on the evening of October 29th to witness the final round of the 20th Wabash College Moot Court Competition. Thirty-six students competed in this year’s competition, and from them four finalists were chosen and given the opportunity to simulate arguing a case addressing the following question in front of the Supreme Court:
Whether a state violates the Equal Protection Clause by amending its constitution to prohibit race and sex-based discrimination or preferential treatment in public-university admissions decisions.
The members of the Wabash Supreme Court panel were Hon. Steve David (Indiana Supreme Court), Hon. Debra McVicker Lynch (United States District Court), Wabash President Gregory D. Hess, and Dr. Lloyd T. Wilson ’77 (Indiana University McKinneyS School of Law) who served as Chief Justice for the evening. Arguing in favor of the state’s right to create such an amendment were political science majors Adam Alexander ’16 and Nash Jones ’16. They were challenged by rhetoric and political Science major Jacob Burnett ’15 and German major Cory Kopitzke ’14. The four presented their arguments in turn and were interrupted, questioned, and challenged by the judges all the while. The judges were interested in taking each of the finalists’ arguments quite seriously and probed them with the same intimidating thoroughness that one might expect from a real oral argument.
Alexander and Jones presented their arguments first. Alexander argued that affirmative action policies lie outside the original intent of the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment as such policies are created with the intent to increase racial diversity and entail using race as a factor to affect admissions decisions. Alexander presented a different solution which would create more opportunities for all students: admissions evaluations that consider socio-economic standing. He used statistical evidence from school systems in California to show that legislation encouraging this policy has been linked to higher enrollment of minority students without relying on racial preferences.
Jones, arguing on the same side of the case, defended the state’s position by stating that the state amendment does not place an excessive burden on minorities by banning classifications based on race for admissions decisions. He reminded the court that the proposed amendment banned classifications of other sorts too (sex, national origin) and that the sum of all the minorities who stood to profit from affirmative action policies actually constituted a majority of university applicants.
The challengers’ arguments were heard next. Burnett reminded the court that there was legal precedent for upholding the option of affirmative action policies and argued that the state had a compelling interest in increasing racial diversity among students. He reminded the court that there was a disparity between the graduation rates of whites and blacks prior to the implementation of affirmative action admissions policies and that the latter group is inherently disadvantaged. It is therefore the responsibility of the state, bound by its obligation to equal protection, to protect underserved minorities by allowing racial discrimination in admissions decisions.
Kopitzke was given the final word before the judges left to deliberate. He argued that there are hurdles placed before certain minority groups that are not slowing others. The goal of affirmative action policies is to remove those hurdles and grant the equal opportunities otherwise denied to them. Political power would be allocated in a way that unduly burdens minority students if the amendment were to be upheld by the court, and this situation would be irrevocable if a constitutional amendment were passed. It should, then, be in the hands of individual admissions boards to decide on the value of such policies.
The state’s litigators were permitted to give a brief rebuttal, and then the judges left to deliberate off-stage. During this time Salter Hall buzzed with opinions, assessments of the finalists’ presentations, and predictions. The judges returned and awarded the prize to Cory Kopitzke ’14 for his superior preparation and composure. Each judge took time to congratulate the contestants and to praise them for an excellent understanding of the case.The judges seemed to agree on three things in particular: each contestant was extraordinarily well prepared with the subtleties of the topic; each managed to focus on the argument before him without wandering; and each exhibited remarkable calm and composure while responding to the difficult task of arguing a case before a panel of legal experts with their classmates and friends looking on. According to one judge, the four finalists (each of whom hopes to attend law school after Wabash) exhibited a level of legal prowess that matches that of many current law students. One goal of the Moot Court event is to offer the school a demonstration of excellent argumentation and oratory; the judges seemed to be unanimously agreed that this year’s finalists did just that!