Supreme experience

N.D. Supreme Court’s annual visit to UND School of Law generates excitement among students and collegiality throughout state

In the 2020 UND School of Law Moot Court competition (shown here), UND law students argued their cases in front of justices of the North Dakota Supreme Court.  The competition’s final round usually is held in the law school’s VandeWalle Courtroom but was held virtually this year. Web screenshot.

For many North Dakotans, the chance to hear oral arguments being made before the North Dakota Supreme Court, then chat with the justices about their work, would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

For students at the University of North Dakota School of Law, it was called Wednesday, at least last week during the Supreme Court’s annual visit to the school.

The North Dakota Supreme Court makes a tradition of visiting the School of Law for two days each year. This year, the visit took place over the two days via Zoom. But law students still had the chance to listen to oral arguments in an actual case, talk with the justices, get tips from the justices on lawyering skills – and, in the case of certain students, argue before the justices in the final round of Moot Court.

The once-a-year visit is a key feature that sets the UND School of Law apart, said Michael McGinniss, the school’s dean.

“This kind of annual visit, where the entire court participates and actually comes to the school and hears oral arguments, is rare, to the best of my knowledge,” McGinniss said.

“We did it virtually this year, but I was really excited that the court was so willing to work with us to bring that about – to not only hear oral arguments, but then make themselves available to the students for a Q&A, and visit with classrooms and student organizations.

“All of those elements met the same values and goals that we have for the traditional in-person visit, which are to make connections and build a sense of relationship between our students and the North Dakota Supreme Court.”

It’s wonderful to see the students listen avidly and talk excitedly as they’re given tips on lawyering from a Supreme Court justice, McGinniss said.

North Dakota nice

For their part, the five justices – four of whom are graduates of the UND School of Law – look forward to the occasion as much as the students do.

“We really enjoy our visits to UND,” said Chief Justice Jon J. Jensen, UND School of Law Class of 1990. For one thing, “the law school does a great job of setting up different opportunities for us to interact with students.”

And for another, that interaction matters beyond the teaching that the justices offer and the lessons the students learn, Jensen said.

“North Dakota has a very small practicing bar,” the chief justice noted. “And while attorneys fight vigorously for their clients, at the end of the day, there’s a collegiality here that a lot of states don’t have.”

The North Dakota Supreme Court’s annual visit to the UND School of Law helps preserve that spirit, he said.

“By visiting with the students, many of whom are going to be practicing in North Dakota, we’re hoping we can maintain that collegiality, because I do think it’s something very special about the state.”

Samantha Schmidt, a second-year law student at the School of Law, said that spirit is a big part of what drew her to the school.

“UND really attracted my attention both because the state’s legal community is so small, and because we’re the only law school in the state,” she said. “That means we have access to the top legal minds in North Dakota, including those on the Supreme Court. For the justices to take the time to visit with the different groups on campus and talk to the students is just pretty amazing.”

During last year’s visit, Schmidt sat next to Justice Lisa Fair McEvers, UND School of Law Class of 1997, at lunch. “And I was so excited, because she and I ended up having a ton in common,” Schmidt said.

“It was so great to hear her story, especially because she’s the only female on the court right now. And I don’t think I would have had that chance to network in such a real way if it weren’t for the school’s close relationship with the Supreme Court and the Court’s visit to campus each year.”

As part of their virtual visit to the UND School of Law on Oct. 28, the North Dakota Supreme Court invited law students to watch the oral arguments in State v. Foote, an actual Supreme Court case. Web screenshot.

‘And I rest my case’

This year’s virtual court visit brought to Schmidt another unique opportunity: the chance to argue her Moot Court case in front of the North Dakota Supreme Court. In re the case of Mervin Mistletoe v. the United States, this year’s Moot Court problem, Schmidt and fellow student Allisha Dworshak were named Moot Champions of the 2020 competition, and Schmidt was further honored for presenting the best oral argument in the final round.

“I was absolutely terrified,” Schmidt said with a laugh, recalling how she felt before she made her case.

“One cool thing about our story is that Allisha is in Dickinson (N.D.) right now. So, she’s over 350 miles away and in a different time zone.

“That means throughout this entire project” – and Moot Court competition unfolds across several rounds, taking months – “we worked together via phone calls, Zoom meetings and texts.” That included texting feedback to each other during actual arguments in the case.

“We spent a lot of hours critiquing, changing, modifying and improving our arguments before Wednesday,” almost all of it virtual, she said.

Still another highlight came after the competition, when the justices critiqued the students’ performances. “I don’t know if it was directed at me, but Justice McEvers said something that made me think,” Schmidt said.

During her presentation, Schmidt had found herself with a little extra time, and decided to plunge ahead with a slightly less fully formed argument that she’d kept in reserve. “I just decided to go there, because I figured I’d get it in,” she said.

“But what Justice McEvers said is, ‘Be careful not to go down a path where you’re not completely prepared.’ So, what I learned from that is, ‘Quit while you’re ahead.’ Instead of going the extra mile in this instance, I probably should have said, ‘And I rest my case.’

“I feel like I’ll keep that in the back of my mind from now on,” Schmidt said.

That kind of learning is an invaluable part of the Court’s visit, Dean McGinniss said.

“I didn’t do Moot Court when I was in law school, and by the time I got into my first full argument in front of the Delaware Supreme Court, I wished I had,” McGinniss said.

“I kind of had to learn on the fly. So our students are getting a great experience by doing this and having the chance to interact with the justices. It’s been tremendous.”