Thurgood Marshall and the value of moot court
Recently I was reminiscing about a day long ago when I met briefly with one of our country’s most admired and iconic men – Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall – and what I learned from him about the value of moot court in preparation for trial. I had shared my recollections in a speech I presented at a ceremony of the American College of Trial Lawyers but I think the values of the lesson are worth sharing here as well.
I was an 18-year-old college student when I had the opportunity to meet with Justice Marshall, who was then Solicitor General of the United States. I had been writing a thesis about him for a college class and thought it might be interesting to meet him in person. I called and explained myself to his secretary who laughed at my apparent naiveté but remarkably arranged the meeting. Once I was at his office, Justice Marshall made me feel comfortable and at ease almost instantly. He had a great buoyant laugh and a wonderful, slightly baudy sense of humor. Once we got down to business, I questioned him about Brown v. Board of Education.
This is what he told me: In preparing for oral argument in the Brown case, he had conducted a moot court session at Howard University Law School. Shortly thereafter he was scheduled to begin oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court. As a young college student, I wasn’t familiar with the expression “moot court,” so he explained to me that moot court was the term used to describe a simulated argument for practice. With moot court, he elucidated, “You can iron out the wrinkles of your argument and observe the reaction of your listeners for purposes of strengthening your case.”
Justice Marshall went on to explain that the moot court session for the Brown case seemed to go on forever, with law students – in their roles as mock judges -- peppering him with an endless stream of questions. At around midnight, one particular student asked him a question he simply could not answer: “By this time I was shocked and also weary,” he said. “It was after midnight, but, young fella, the duty of a lawyer is to push forward. And so we did, and we worked out an answer.”
At this point in the story, Justice Marshall paused briefly, but then continued: “Then the day of the hearing, damned if one of the Justices didn’t ask the same question. I just looked at the Justice; put my hand on my chin, looked down and gathered my thoughts, and pow – right in the kisser -- nailed the question.”
This remarkable meeting confirmed my desire to become a trial lawyer. More than forty years later, I often think about my brief time spent with Justice Marshall and the stories he took the time to share with a young college boy who simply had the audacity to call him up and ask for an interview. I also think often about the value of moot court and what our country might be like today had not this great man also seen its value.