Amelia DeGory ‘17 and Ethan Wright ’18 won the 2017 Dean’s Cup Moot Court competition on Feb. 21. Joining DeGory and Wright in the final round were Leah Brenner ’18 and Hope Staneski ‘18. DeGory was named best oralist.
The three judges were unanimous in their praise of both teams’ poise and skill at parrying their questions. Filling the panel were Judge Jose Cabranes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and Judge Algenon Marbley of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.
“I want to commend all of you for the level of preparation and the level of understanding that you brought to this,” said Marbley. “You never missed a beat and it made your argument, I thought, very effective.”
“I was just really impressed that all four of you kept control of the argument,” added Sutton, who invited the finalists to his court in Cincinnati to argue a case once they have passed the bar.
The students’ arguments were based on Burwell v. CNS International Ministries, Inc., a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2015-16 term.
Brenner and Staneski, representing the plaintiffs, argued that the mandate was a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the government from substantially burdening religious exercise unless that burden is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest. A subsequent accommodation issued by the Food and Drug Administration shifting responsibility for contraceptive coverage to the government likewise violated the law, they argued.
DeGory and Wright, representing HHS, said the mandate and accommodation furthered a compelling government interest in ensuring “seamless” access to contraceptives for the religious groups’ employees. They also represented less restrictive solutions than the alternatives offered by plaintiffs, such as providing contraceptive coverage under separate plans managed by the government, they said.
“Each of you showed a command of the subject matter which was really quite remarkable,” said Cabranes. “You clearly had command of the legal substance and of the record, which was great.”
The Dean’s Cup, initiated in 1963 by Deans E.R. Latty and J.D. Johnston, is Duke’s premier oral advocacy competition. Held annually for second- and third-year students and organized by the Moot Court Board, the Dean’s Cup seeks to highlight the school’s best appellate advocates. The competition centers around a case taught in the Appellate Practice class offered every fall.
In the preliminary round of the Dean’s Cup, students compete individually, each arguing three times in front of faculty and alumni. The 16 competitors with the highest oral advocacy scores are invited to participate in the round-robin quarterfinals. Competitors are power-matched into eight two-person teams based on their standing in the preliminary round. Four teams each are assigned to represent the petitioner and the respondent. Each team argues four times — once against each team representing the opposite side — before faculty and alumni judges. Each team also submits a full-length brief to be graded by three faculty members. Final rankings are based on brief scores (20 percent) and oral argument scores (80 percent). The highest-ranked team on each side advances to the final round.