Professor Takes High School Students to Washington for Moot Court Competition, Make it to Semifinals

April 8, 2012

Ten high school students from Denver, Thornton and Lyons had the experience of a lifetime when a University of Colorado law professor brought them to Washington, D.C., for a national moot court competition March 29-April 1, where one student advanced to the semifinals.

While in Washington, D.C., they met with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and toured the Supreme Court, met with U.S. Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado and toured the Capitol, and visited several national monuments and museums.

Associate Professor Melissa Hart, director of the Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law at the Colorado Law School, led the students on the trip to participate in the National Marshall-Brennan Moot Court Competition. Eighteen of Hart’s law students have worked with 250 students at seven high schools since last September as part of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project.

Isabella Solman, a senior at Lyons High School, was one of 24 students selected to advance to the semifinals in the moot court competition.

Jessica Smith, a second-year student at Colorado Law, explained that this is Colorado Law’s first year participating in the program. She became involved in the constitutional literacy project through her Education and the Constitution class.

“This is a great first year to get our students first to nationals and then to the semifinal round,” said Smith. “I think the best part of this experience was being able to establish a relationship with the students.”

In addition to Solman, the group that went to Washington consisted of two other students from Lyons High School (Sean Flynn and Marcos Rodriguez); three from Bruce Randolph High School in Denver (Cierra Conner, Alfonso Espino, and Rene Garcia); two from Mapleton Early College in Thornton (Loren Tenorio and Cipriano Marrujo); and two from York International in Thornton (Navil Perez and Viviana Andazola). They were selected after a regional competition at Colorado Law.

Of the 10 students, six competed in the national competition and the other four were alternates.

Solman said she has met with Colorado Law students every Friday since September as part of her AP government class. “They went through the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and different court cases that apply to students, that apply to our lives,” she said.

Support for the trip came from private fundraising. Including Smith, six Colorado Law students went to Washington D.C. for the competition, some of whom paid their own way because they wanted to be there to support the students.

Part of a national program, the literacy project leads high school students through highlights of important Supreme Court cases affecting the rights and responsibilities of students. The second- and third-year law students also coached the students for the moot court competition.

“I thought all of the students did a great job,” said Joseph Cash, a second-year law student at Colorado Law. “It’s really rewarding to see students gain literacy in the Constitution more so than they are getting from the general curriculum.”

The moot court considered the question of whether the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles who commit felony murder violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Felony murder refers to unintentional murder committed during the course of an inherently dangerous felony situation.

“It is a really interesting question, very similar to two cases the Supreme Court actually heard arguments on the week before the competition,” Hart said.

Coaches and high school participants say they mutually benefited from the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy project.  

“It has helped me with skills such as communicating with people who may not have knowledge of the legal language and communicating information with them so they understand the law,” Cash said. It gives high school students “skills that are transferable to anything they want to do: public speaking skills, critical thinking skills, analysis, and reading and writing skills.”   

Solmon said the competition has improved her public speaking and that she also has visited with law students on the CU-Boulder campus in order to practice. And while she has long been interested in going to graduate school, “I’d definitely consider going to law school now,” she added.

Next year’s Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project and moot court program will expand into additional Colorado high schools, Hart said.

For more information on the National Marshall-Brennan Moot Court Competition visit http://www.wcl.american.edu/marshallbrennan/nat_competition.cfm.

For more information on the Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law visit http://www.colorado.edu/law/centers/byronwhite/marshall-brennan.htm.