Upper School Students Learn The Art of Interpretation Through Supreme Court Cases

Gavels, students clad in black robes, the theater’s red curtain drawn. The Supreme Court? No, but close. Welcome to Upper School English teacher Phil Huss’s Moot Court. A time-honored tradition for 18 years, this is the highlight of his "Interpretations in Law and Literature" course. Students read cases that take on some of the most important issues of our time and then “live it” complete with student Supreme Court Justices and student lawyers. Past cases over the years have involved the constitutionality of same sex marriage, freedom of religion and speech, affirmative action, and abortion. Phil creates his own hypothetical Supreme Court cases based on actual ones. According to Phil, “Moot Court simulates oral arguments of the US Supreme Court. Student lawyers write legal briefs (one lawyer argues for the constitutionality of affirmative action and one against) and submit them to student Supreme Court Justices. Each Justice reads the two briefs and writes five questions for each brief to prepare for oral arguments. Each attorney (sometimes pairs) gets 30 minutes for oral argument. Justices interrupt with questions. On the second day of Moot Court, the Justices deliver their opinions one by one and their interpretive reasoning. After oral arguments, each student writes a judicial opinion on the constitutionality of the opinion. I have written 12 hypothetical court cases, but students usually are able to complete eight by the end of the two-term course. Students choose the issues we study after affirmative action, abortion, same sex marriage / religious liberty, and death penalty Moot Courts.”

This fall’s case was William Preston vs. New England College and Phil says it was based upon the actual Fisher vs. University of Texas (2016) affirmative action case. The Moot Court case addressed whether a college or university can have a two-tiered affirmative action plan: one that automatically accepts seniors who apply and graduate in the top 10% of their class and one that individually reviews each applicants' files for their potential contribution to educational diversity. Phil says, “Essentially, the question is whether the two policies are a logical extension of Grutter vs. Bollinger (2003) that upheld individually reviewing all applicants' files for their potential contribution to educational diversity.”

Why this case? “I picked this case because I wanted students to feel the pull to decide cases in a way that aligned with self-interests," Phil says. "Non-minority students would likely find the policy to be unconstitutional because they want admission policies to be meritorious without the consideration of race or ethnicity. This allows us to address whether or not personal predilections should matter in constitutional interpretation. This also allows us to discuss interpretive methods that check subjectivity.”

In the end, Phil's hope is that his students develop skills in both critical thinking and oral and written persuasive argumentation; and most importantly, learn how to address both complementary and contrary interpretive methods in determining the constitutionality of a policy or law.