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Preparation Pays Off For Final Four Petitioners in Argument Before Chief Justice Roberts

PetitionersJohn G. Roberts, Jr., Chief Justice of the United States, had the chance to put four UF law students on the spot this semester.

Roberts became the first representative of the U.S. Supreme Court in history to judge the Justice Campbell Thornal Moot Court Final Four on Sept. 5 at the Curtis M. Phillips Center.

"To have the Chief Justice of our nation judge our Final Four Moot Court Competition is a great privilege for our students and the University of Florida," said Robert Jerry, dean of the UF College of Law and Levin, Mabie and Levin Professor of Law. "It is a tremendous understatement to say that it has elevated both the significance of this annual event and the anxiety levels of our student competitors."

In years past, Florida Supreme Court justices or judges from the 11th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals have presided over the competition. Judge Peter T. Fay, Judge Susan H. Black and Judge Rosemary Barkett joined Roberts on the Moot Court panel. They are all UF College of Law graduates and are judges from the 11th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

And even though they prepared for countless hours throughout the past two weeks, the Justice Campbell Thornal Moot Court Final Four competitors couldn’t help being nervous before arguing in front of Chief Justice Roberts.

Cary Aronovitz, Kevin Combest, Robert Davis and Tara Nelson argued a hypothetical case in front of Roberts and three judges from the 11th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals on Friday.

"Before I went out, we were all kind of sweaty palms and we thought it was going to be nerve-racking," Combest said. "But as soon as you get out there, he’s about as tall as you, he’s a regular guy." Added Nelson. "The gravity of the situation added to the nerves."

Aronovitz won the best brief and best oral argument awards, while Davis took home the best overall participant. Aronovitz and Combest won the competition for the petitioner, and Davis and Nelson argued for the respondent.

"I haven’t even really thought about it at this point," Davis said. "It was a very nice honor, but I was extremely proud of everybody. Cary with the best brief and the best oral, and Tara and Kevin out there. "It’s a great honor, but at this point, I’m just glad I didn’t fall over."

The competitors prepared for hours everyday since they found out they made the Final Four. Part of their preparations included professors posing hostile questions during their arguments to try to throw off the students.

"What really made it much easier than you would’ve thought it would be was that the questions the professors asked us in practice were hard-hitting, adversarial, trying to get us to screw up, and that prepared us to talk to these judges and justices who didn’t want to do that," Combest said. "They just wanted to talk back and forth. We had seen the works, and anything less than that was just pleasant."

That grueling preparation was essential since Roberts wasted no time questioning the competitors. Just one minute into Aronovitz’s argument, Roberts cut him off with a question.

"The very first question presented to me was [Chief Justice] Roberts, and I was anticipating that question, but it was probably the one question I really didn’t want to answer," Aronovitz said. "I got it out of my mouth, I saw him nodding and that was a big confidence booster."

The case was about the constitutionality of the fictional State of Webb allowing a specialty license plate with the words "Choose Life" without allowing a license plate with an opposing viewpoint.

UF Law Professor Lyrissa Lidsky stressed the importance of the case even though it was hypothetical because Florida was the first state to have a "Choose Life" license plate. Florida is also considering a license plate with the words "I Believe" and a cross, Lidsky said. South Carolina recently approved such a license plate, and a lawsuit has already been filed in the matter.

"This is a very important issue, it’s a hot issue, and some smart people in our intermediate appellate courts have split on the constitutionality of the issue," Lidsky said.

The judges and the chief justice seemed somewhat loose with their questions and didn’t hit the students too hard.

Roberts took a playful jab at the three circuit court judges, Judge Peter T. Fay, Judge Susan H. Black and Judge Rosemary Barkett, when Aronovitz brought up lower circuit cases that are not binding on the Supreme Court. "We’re not bound, of course, by what the circuit courts have to say," Roberts said. "We don’t pay much attention to them."

During Nelson’s argument, Fay addressed Roberts’ joke and responded.

"Some of us want to pay attention to what those other judges write," Fay said.

Although the bench ruled for the petitioner, Roberts said all of the students performed well.

"We unanimously decided that there was not a bad one among them," Roberts said. "That’s not always the case, so we appreciate very much, as we do in our day jobs, that a lot of work went into the presentations. Judges and justices are very grateful when that happens."

After the competition, Roberts surprised two law school classes with visits.

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