The National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y., is the largest interschool environmental moot court in the nation, regularly attracting over 200 students from various schools to compete and 200 attorneys to serve as judges. Halley Epstein, YLS ’14, and Sarah Langberg, YLS/FES ’14, participated in this year’s competition and made it through to the semifinal round—one of the top nine teams out of the 76 competing—and the only team without a coach to advance to the penultimate round.
They recently sat down with the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy to discuss their experience.
What is a moot court?
Sarah Langberg: The Pace competition simulates writing and arguing in front of an appellate court. Participants receive a prompt describing issues decided either by a state supreme court or a lower federal district court; they then argue those issues on appeal to a higher court.
The organizers generally pick an issue that’s heavily contested in the courts—one for which there’s no clear outcome; different courts may have decided in conflicting ways; it’s not clear which side is correct or what the best argument is. It’s for the students to then determine the best legal reasoning and policy arguments and ask themselves what they can bring to bear on these unresolved questions.
What issues did the competition highlight?
Sarah Langberg: The competition highlighted six key issues—two procedural, and four substantive. Each involved the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act. The nuances of the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction have been contested for decades, and a series of Supreme Court decisions in the early 2000s made these issues even more confusing.
Halley Epstein: Even though the Supreme Court addressed some of the nuances of our case, their past decisions left many unresolved questions in the field. The procedural issues we had to address dealt with who can bring suit and who can enforce certain rights in federal court.
Sarah Langberg: For the Clean Water Act in particular, jurisdiction is so important because once you say a water is protected under the Act, it’s clear cut what those protections are and how they’ll apply. But getting that water protected under the Act is the game, and people often heavily contest that jurisdiction.
How much time did you have to prepare?
Halley Epstein: We received the prompt in early October, and we had two months to research and write the brief itself. We then had another two and a half months to prepare for the oral argument part of the competition.
Sarah Langberg: There were three parties in case, and we had to choose only one party for whom to write our brief. But for the oral arguments, we had to argue all three sides.
Halley Epstein: The morning of the competition we drove from New Haven to White Plains. We couldn’t find out which side we were arguing until we arrived, so we had a short amount of time to orient ourselves and get into the mindset of “this party’s right and here’s why.”
What was the competition itself like?
Halley Epstein: We argued five cases—three preliminary rounds, the quarterfinal round, and then the semifinal round. Each round is a full two hours, with three teams participating in a case. Each student is allotted 15 minutes (30 minutes per party, since two oralists represent each team in a given round) with the remaining time left for rebuttal.
Most teams had three students; only two argue per round, so one person typically gets a break. But as a two-person team, we did not have any breaks—the competition was non-stop. There were a lot of mental gymnastics going on in switching between the different parties each round.
Sarah Langberg: Fifteen minutes of arguing in front of the judges, by yourself—just you having a conversation with the judges—feels like a very long time. And that’s what it’s like in real appellate courts.
How does an experience like this shape or change your perspective on the practice of law?
Sarah Langberg: I’ve been thinking that I want to litigate. Successfully standing in the line of fire of the judges’ questions was definitely an affirming experience. I enjoyed the atmosphere. It didn’t feel like pressure, it felt exciting.
Halley Epstein: We’re both interested in litigation, but neither of us had participated in moot court before. The practice—even if we had gone home after the first round—gave us the opportunity to learn about our styles, things we want to work on, and the conversational aspects of our presentations that we want to continue to build.
Sarah Langberg: The brief writing aspect of it was also very valuable. We wrote briefs our 1L year, but that was just as we were coming into law school. Through various internships and practical experience, we’ve written a section of something here or there, so doing a whole brief ourselves was an invaluable experience.
Halley Epstein: And the team aspect of dividing the issues and then consulting with each other to ensure our lines of reasoning were consistent was also important because, in the real world, you may have primary responsibility for a motion or brief, but you mostly likely will be writing with someone else.
It was interesting to talk to students from the other teams and find out how they had prepared. The competition was a fun and unique way to connect with other people interested in environmental issues.
Sarah Langberg: Preparing the brief and oral arguments from three perspectives forced us to think about issues in various lights and put our education into practice in a way that we often don’t get to do in standard classes. It was a wonderful experience.
Halley Epstein: Because we had such a good experience, we’re encouraging students in the Yale Environmental Law Association to coordinate a more formal team next year. Even though our informal effort worked very well, a little more structure will help YLS field competitive teams in future years.
Halley Epstein, YLS ’14, will be clerking on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit after graduation.
Sarah Langberg,YLS/FES ’14, is a joint-degree student with the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She will be clerking for the Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court after graduation.