Courtesy of John Gonzalez

Nearly 40 high school students from across New Haven prepared legal arguments to compete in a Marshall-Brennan moot court competition held at Yale Law School on Nov 1. In an effort to institutionalize its mission — promoting constitutional literacy in high schools — the Marshall-Brennan program expanded into an additional school this year and looks to host a third competition in the spring.

Students from Yale Law School’s chapter of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project — a national civics education program that every year places law school candidates into public high schools — taught participants from three local high schools. Program directors Becca Steinberg LAW ’20 and John Gonzalez LAW ’20, who were constitutional law teachers at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School last year, coordinate lesson planning and program organization. In addition to Cooperative and Hillhouse High School, the program added a third school — High School in the Community — this year.

With dozens of students spread across the three classrooms, the six law student mentors have been preparing their students for the moot court competition and discussing legally relevant student issues over the past year. In this year’s competition, students had to grapple with this fictional situation: students in a particular school must go through a handheld metal detector to detect against vaping devices, and the plaintiff — whose metal plate sets off the detector everyday, requiring a pat-down — claims these searchers are a violation of their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“All students at the three high schools have to go through metal detectors” Gonzalez said. “Being subject to a search everyday changes student perception about safety, and so it is very impressive seeing them make legal arguments from the school and student perspectives.”

According to Steinberg, the local students applied precedent from three related Supreme Court cases to this example: New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), Board of Education v. Earls (2002) and Safford Unified School District v. Redding (2009). They then competed in the preliminary rounds, which were judged by 68 law student volunteers.

The semifinals were judged by a panel that included affinity group leaders from the Black Law Students Association, First Generation Professionals, Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and Women of Color Collective.

Professor Monica Bell, Solomon Center Executive Director and lecturer Katie Kraschel and Reproductive Justice Fellow Faren Tang judged the final round of the competition.

The tournament gives these students the opportunity to display the public speaking skills and legal knowledge they have acquired in the lead up to the competition.

“Watching our students compete in our Fall Moot Court Competition was the proudest I have felt in law school to-date,” said Bianca Herlitz-Ferguson LAW ’21, who teaches at Cooperative High School. “[…] They have taught me so much about the law, how students approach the law, and how their experiences shape their interpretations.”

In the spring semester, the program will host two more local tournaments. In February, students will study and present arguments related to students’ First Amendment free speech rights as well as Fifth Amendment rights during interactions with police officers.

Based on February’s results, a team of eleven students will advance to the National Marshall-Brennan competition. Last year, Cooperative High School senior Pablo Sanchez-Levalois competed in the semifinals. For those students not competing in nationals, the program will host a competition in April that may focus on the 14th Amendment and trans rights in schools.

“The reason we are able to expand is that we now have more faculty support,” Gonzalez said. “We are working with [YLS] Professor Justin Driver, who wrote The Schoolhouse Gate —  an extensive look at constitutional law in the life of students —  to sponsor a supervised research credit.”

Driver will also be teaching a Law School course called “The Constitution Goes to School” in the spring.

“I have been extremely impressed with both the YLS students and the New Haven public school students who are working together as part of the Marshall-Brennan Project,” Driver said. “There are few matters of greater urgency than promoting understanding of constitutional principles among our youth —  particularly at this pivotal hour in our nation’s history.”

The Yale Law School chapter of the Marshall-Brennan project was established in 2009.

Samuel Turner|