To help celebrate Mississippi’s yearlong bicentennial, United States Chief Justice John Roberts paid a visit to the Magnolia State. While here, the chief justice gave Ole Miss law students the opportunity to argue a fictional case before him in a moot court competition in Jackson.
In this fictitious case, the team representing Ole Miss argued the appeal of a man convicted of criminal negligence in a chemical pollution disaster, while the opposing squad from Mississippi College School of Law argued for upholding.
The Ole Miss team was comprised of tried and true third-year law students Meredith Pohl of Houston and James Kelly on his home turf of the capital. Both members of the counsel admitted that even though they had argued dozens of moot cases before, trying one in front of the chief justice intensified the pressure.
“When I first entered law school, I never wanted to be a courtroom attorney. It was not until after trying out for the moot court team that I realized that I am a litigator at heart,” Pohl said. “And now, here I was arguing a white-collar law case in front of the man who was the best Supreme Court litigator before ascending the bench. It was surreal.”
Judges from the state Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and the federal court division joined the chief justice on the appellate panel for the competition. Ole Miss moot court coach Chris Green said he both admires and envies the “chill reservoirs” his students showed at the competition.
“Not only was there added pressure for the students, but it seemed like even the state judges on the panel were feeling the pressure,” Green said. “Temperamentally, Meredith and James were much better suited for this event than myself.”
Both students and their coach emphasized the hours of group and individual training that go into preparing for these competitions. Kelly said the prep process usually starts with thorough individual research, and actually attempting a verbal argument comes last.
“You have to begin with getting a detailed understanding of the case you’ll be arguing, and for me, that means researching all I can on related cases and subject matter,” Kelly said. “Once I understand the nature of the case and any precedents, I can start to formulate an oral argument, but those always change as we learn new information and shape new ideas.”
The team from Ole Miss edged out the Mississippi College posse and gained innocence for its hypothetical client. In a statement to The Clarion-Ledger, the chief justice commended both counsels on creating an atmosphere like that of the Supreme Court.
“This was a very real duplication of what we do in Washington,” Roberts said. “For people who have not (seen) a Supreme Court argument, it is the best show in town.”
Pohl and Kelly were quick to voice pleasure in the opportunity to learn from the chief justice, and they both said he was able to lend some wisdom after the competition.
“He reminded me of a legal phrase called ‘zealous advocacy,’” Pohl said. “Our job is to represent someone’s personal rights and liberties. It is important for us to be respectful and aggressive and to push back to judges’ questions.”
Kelly echoed his co-counsel’s sentiments and added that Roberts emphasized strong communication skills.
“He told us that a litigant’s ability to deliver an argument that is both compelling and concise is key,” Kelly said. “It is not always better to say more. Responding to questions directly and briefly are most important.”
The competitors and their coach were treated to dinner with the chief justice. He discussed the history of federal justice and gave the Ole Miss representatives a look into his personal side. Green commended the character Roberts showed during their outing.
“The chief displayed great sensitivity, humor and charm as he discussed our state’s legal history,” Green said. “I was encouraged to know that such a man is charged as a guarantor of the rule of law and our nation’s chief justice.”
Trying a case in front of a member of the Supreme Court is a career goal for many attorneys, but Pohl and Kelly have achieved the feat early and say it is not an experience they will take for granted.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kelly said. “It was thrilling and educational, something I will never forget.”
According to Pohl, the occasion was a dream come true.
“My dream career is to practice Supreme Court litigation,” Pohl said. “To think I’ve already touched that goal at 23 is more than I could ever ask for. The subject matter is just the cherry on top.”