Melissa Dix ’20 prevailed in oral arguments in the final round of the Hardt Cup moot court competition for first-year students on April 10, arguing on behalf of the petitioner in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving legislative prayer delivered by legislators. Jack Smith ’20 argued on behalf of the respondent.
Judge Raymond Kethledge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit served as chief justice for the final round. Also serving on the panel were Justice Eva Guzman MJS ’14 of the Supreme Court of Texas, a member of the Law School’s Board of Visitors, and Judge Joseph Bianco of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
The judges praised the competitors for their arguments, especially their conversational style and ability to predict and parry tough inquiries from the panel.
“Each of you obviously put a great deal of time into preparing for this, and I think you had anticipated [the judges’] concerns very well,” Kethledge said, noting in particular their willingness to “embrace the hardest questions.”
Added Guzman: “I like that you engaged well with the questions that were posed. Neither of you seemed stumped or particularly puzzled. You had a response and they were good responses.”
The Hardt Cup problem was based on Lund v. Rowan County, N.C., which challenged the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ practice of beginning each meeting with a prayer delivered by one of its members. In almost all cases, the prayers were Christian in nature, and three non-Christian residents of the county claimed the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. After losing at the trial court level and in an en banc ruling of the Fourth Circuit, Rowan County appealed to the Supreme Court, where the case is now pending.
The Supreme Court has only taken up the issue of legislative prayer twice, in Marsh v. Chambers and Town of Greece v. Galloway, upholding the practice in both cases. Hardt Cup competitors were instructed to consider whether Rowan County’s practice as a whole amounts to an unconstitutional establishment of religion, and whether various facets of the county’s practice pose constitutional problems, such as who delivers the prayers and their content.
“It does create a closed universe of who is delivering the prayers,” Dix said in response to a query from Guzman. “However, this Court recognized that the Establishment Clause does not create an affirmative duty to accommodate religious diversity.”
Bianco also complimented Dix and Smith on their facility in responding to questions, deciding when to argue a point and when to concede, and listening to — and referencing — points made by the other side.
“The fact that you’re 1Ls just blows me away,” he said. “You are functioning at such a high level of appellate advocacy, doing so many different things that are really advanced, not just for law students, but for lawyers.”
The Hardt Cup Competition was launched by students in the Class of 1964, in memory of their classmate, A. Lee Hardt, who died after completing his first year at Duke Law. The annual four-round competition for 1Ls is organized by the Moot Court Board and held in the weeks following spring break, with participation in the first round a mandatory component of the 1L Legal Analysis, Research and Writing curriculum. Participation in subsequent rounds, through which students can earn an invitation to join the Moot Court Board, is voluntary. This year, 216 students participated in the first round, 80 elected to continue to the second round, and 22 accepted invitations to join the Moot Court Board.
In each of the three preliminary rounds, students argued twice in front of members of the board. Panels of faculty judges scored the quarterfinal round and the semifinal round was judged by local practitioners. Moot Court Board members Jules Carter, Meredith Compton, Bryan Czako, and Kyle Nodes all 2Ls, served as 2017-2018 Hardt Cup coordinators.