I love oral argument. To prepare for our oral arguments in our Lawyering class (where NYU 1Ls learn practical legal skills) last year, our professors took us to see appellate arguments in front of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Foley Square. I found it thrilling to watch the lawyers try to answer every question the judges (including then Judge Sonia Sotomayor) could throw at them.
Some of the lawyers arguing in front of the Second Circuit that day did a terrific job. But the best advocacy that I’ve seen in law school was done outside the courtroom, before students rather than judges, and succeeded because it focused on personal, emotional pleas.
Last week, I watched Burt Neuborne, Inez Milholland Professor of Civil Liberties here at the Law School, debate Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute about the recently argued Supreme Court case, Buono v. Salazar, at an event sponsored by the NYU Law chapter of the Federalist Society.
Professor Neuborne made an impassioned, personal argument that allowing a cross, even one intended to honor military combat veterans, on government land was a slap in the face to non-Christian veterans like his father, one of the first men to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day. While Professor Neuborne made his argument, the room was silent. I looked over at two of my friends who were nodding their heads, and saw that they were as impressed as I was. Professor Neuborne didn’t convince the students in the room with the law he had marshaled on his side, or the facts which clearly supported him. He convinced students because he brought home, clearly, simply, and effectively, that the cross caused real harm to real people.
I remembered that last fall, when I participated in the Orison S. Marden Competition, an intra-school moot court competition in which a number of 2L and 3Ls compete to demonstrate the best appellate litigation skills. The judges kept pointing out that my argument would have sounded stronger if I could point out exactly how my client would suffer from a ruling for my opponent. Professor Neuborne clearly understands that, and helped make an interesting, fun, and illuminating event.