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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, June 21, 2024
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Students Take Their Case to Moot Court

Arguing a case before a panel of three experienced judges would give most attorneys a moment’s pause. When those attorneys are in reality high school seniors, you could expect outright anxiety.

But the eight students taking part Friday in the finals of the Virgin Islands’ 18th Appellate Moot Court Program handled it with aplomb. The case was fictional, but the stakes were real and the skills were admirable.

“Yeah, I was kind of nervous at first,” said Sarah-Ann Charles, but mostly, “It was a rush.”

That rush turned into full-on delight when Charles was one of four students from Sts. Peter and Paul School to take first and second place in the finals, which were held at the District Court Building on St. Croix before a panel made up of Justice Maria M. Cabret of the V.I. Supreme Court, District Court Judge Wilma Lewis and Superior Court Presiding Judge Darryl Donohue.

After Friday’s competition the judges praised the students.

“Every time I do this competition I am always floored by the level of talent,” Donohue told the students. Whether the students decide to pursue law as a career or not, the skills they exercised in the Moot Court will stand them in good stead, he said.

“The ability to express yourself logically, clearly, rationally, is going to take you to new heights.”

The 26 students who took part in the program from seven schools spent months working with teachers and local attorneys to understand not just the law, but how to think the way lawyers think. They studied a fictional legal case, created for the competition, and the very real legal precedents they would cite in their arguments. Most of the schools sent two two-person teams, one representing the appellants and one representing the appellees in the case of “Anderson vs. the People of the U.S. Virgin Islands.”

The students were arguing a search and seizure case, asking the court to decide whether evidence taken in a search should be suppressed or allowed.

Wednesday and Thursday the 13 teams competed on their home islands. Sts. Peter and Paul won both phases of the St. Thomas competition to send both teams to the finals. On St. Croix, the Good Hope appellants took first place and the St. Croix Educational Complex’s appellees took second.

Friday found the Sts. Peter and Paul appellant team of Deja Joseph and Nicolas Heilman in first place, trailed by their teammates Dahlia Daniel and Sara-Ann Charles, arguing for the appellees. On third place was the appellant team from St. Croix Education Complex, Kyminis Violet and Naysayer Wilson. Good Hope’s appellant team, Jamaal Theiler and Jasmine Connor finished fourth.

The first-place finishers each received $1,000 towards their higher education. Second place received $750, third place $500 and fourth place $250.

Other teams competing in the first two days of the competition were:

Good Hope appellees: Rafael Lopez and Deja Belarus.

Education Complex appellants Chinaware Agatha and Kayla Galloway.

St. Croix Seventh Day Adventist School appellees JoAnn Thomas-Lewis and Patricia Francis, and appellants Sophia Johnson and Melissa Eriste.

Eudora Kean High School appellees Jasmine Lavinier and Kyosha Abraham.

All Saints appellees Anika Smith and Le’Nisha Williams and appellants Damara Donovan and Aneesha Penn.

Charlotte Amalie High School appellees Gloria Crooke and Nyala Stagger and appellants Amber Lewis and Akil Richardson.

During Friday’s finals the students did not just present their arguments for and against the search and seizure case; they withstood a battery of questions from the three judges, who weren’t satisfied with just an answer to their questions. They wanted to know “why” the students said it, and would not let up peppering them with questions until they got it.

“This is exactly how it looks for real,” said attorney Robert Molloy, who helped coach the Complex team. “And they did a better job answering the judges than a lot of real attorneys.”

The 18th Moot Court almost didn’t happen, when budget cuts meant the courts had to drop their sponsorship. The Virgin Islands Bar Association jumped into the breach and took over the program, with help in funding from the University of the Virgin Islands pre-law program. It was also the first year the District Court was involved in the program.

Attorney Pam Colon, who helped coach the Good Hope teams, noted that the people who put together the case material gave enough room for both sides to make their arguments. It wasn’t a slam dunk for either side, and the students had to work for their arguments.

“I was really surprised by the depth of detail,” Vialet said. “The details are really important.”

Attorney Nullissa DeWese, giving a keynote address, told the students how taking part in the contest years ago as a student in the territory helped shape her decision to pursue law as a career. She came back to the islands after law school in Ohio to help give back to the community, and urged the students Friday to do the same.

As a public defender, DeWese sees a lot of young people who have already given up on their futures, with no interest in pursuing school or other goals.

She told the students to be focused on their goals in college. There will be time for parties and fun, but their primary goal is getting an education to be a foundation for their futures.

“When you go off to college, focus on your goals and discipline yourself. Your parents won’t be there. You’re on your own,” she said.

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