Between April 5 and 7, New Haven high school students from Hillhouse High School and the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School competed at the National Marshall-Brennan Moot Court competition at American University’s Washington College of Law.
The students were trained by students from Yale Law School’s chapter of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project — a national civics education program that brings law students into public high schools to teach constitutional law. Sesenu Woldemariam LAW ’19, the director of the Law School’s chapter, teaches at Hillhouse High School along with Illyana Green LAW ’19, while John Gonzalez ’15 LAW ’20 and Becca Steinberg ’15 LAW ’20 teach at the Cooperative High School. The law students prepare their mentees for competing in moot court, where they argue imaginary cases in front of a judge. At this year’s local spring competition, eight students advanced to nationals, and one student — Cooperative High School senior Pablo Sanchez-Levalois — competed in the semifinals.
“Before this class, I never considered law at all,” Sanchez-Levalois said. “But afterwards, I discovered a love for it and know way more about it.”
Sanchez-Levalois and seven of his peers traveled to Washington after competing in the local spring moot court competition hosted by the Law School. Every year, the Law School hosts a fall and spring moot court competition, where around 40 Law School students volunteer as judges and Yale Law professors preside over the final rounds.
Gonzalez said that seeing Sanchez-Levalois’ evolution was “incredible.”
“They have to address questions from the judge and answer [them] on the fly, then go back to the speech they prepared,” Gonzalez explained. “[Sanchez-Levalois] could cite cases from memory.
In the spring moot court case, a high school student who protested against gun violence had his phone searched and was eventually suspended, according to Steinberg. The students learned about oral advocacy and student rights, while primarily investigating the First and Fourth Amendments.
“Learning about the first amendment and my rights in school opened my eyes to a lot of things,” said Kasia Kaszuba, a senior at Cooperative. “If something came up on social media that’s not supposed to happen, it was interesting to pull those facts out.”
Around three times a week, the law students teach classes of roughly 17 students about the fundamentals of oral arguments and general legal reasoning. Law students run all aspects of the program, including curriculum design, lesson planning, classroom teaching and tournament organization, according to Gonzalez.
“The way that we try to run our class is that things that students are interested in and passionate about,” Gonzalez said, “The topics we hit are wide-ranging: gender discrimination, right to counsel in criminal defense, death penalty and abortion.”
In the aftermath of the recent officers-involved shooting of New Haven residents Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, Gonzalez said he sees the direct impact of the skills and knowledge that students learn in the constitutional law course.
“Students have liberty, privacy and inequality interests,” Gonzalez said. “For example, students go through a metal detector every day, and in cases like this, they challenge us on our beliefs, and we challenge them on their beliefs.”
Some students also feel that learning constitutional law and experiencing moot court has imbued them with important, applicable skills.
Sanchez-Levalois, one of those high school students, said that he learned a lot from his experience arguing the student suspension case from the school’s perspective.
“When I did the competition, I argued from the school’s side,” he said. “When I went up there, it was interesting to fill the opposite point of view … after learning about our rights as students.”
The Yale Law School chapter of the Marshall-Brennan project was established in 2009.
Samuel Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org