Teams of local high school students competing in the territory’s annual moot court competition appeared poised and confident Tuesday as they made their arguments in a hypothetical V.I. Supreme Court case involving the application of same sex marriage law to the territory.
The Virgin Islands Bar Association and the territory’s judicial branch have organized the moot court competition every year since 1994 as a way to get young people involved with law and current events. According to attorney Nathania Bates, one of the lawyers who acted as moot court judge this year, the competition “gives students the ability to develop public speaking and analytical skills they will carry with them throughout their lives.”
Past legal issues addressed by V.I. students in moot court cases have ranged from firearm laws to mandatory school uniforms. This year students were asked to imagine a scenario in which a fictional same sex couple in the territory was denied the right to marry by a Superior Court ruling, sending the issue on to the V.I. Supreme Court, where the competition was held.
In reality, a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating bans on same sex marriage across the nation is being complied with by V.I. Superior Court and, in 2015, Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp signed an order mandating that all offices of the executive branch honor same sex marriages even though the issue remains controversial among senators.
Multiple teams from three St. Thomas schools – Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, Charlotte Amalie High School and St. Thomas-St. John Seventh Day Adventist School – were assigned to represent both sides of the issue Tuesday. Each team had been coached by members of the local bar association in order to familiarize them with the intricate details of numerous federal cases in addition to V.I. law.
Students took turns presenting oral arguments before a panel of attorneys serving as moot Supreme Court justices, including Bates, Venetia Velazquez and Everard Potter. Over the course of three rounds, the judges asked tough questions of the students involving everything from the “insular cases” that govern citizenship rights in U.S. territories to the separation of powers in government.
Velazquez said she always enjoys events that get young people involved in law because “it gives new life to issues that may seem old hat to us and a new energy to the whole process.”
Potter, in addition to telling the students they should have fun with the event, used a boxing metaphor to describe the proceedings, advising teams to think of oral arguments as “bobbing and weaving” in response to questions from the bench.
Students were informed that they would be judged on their command of the legal issues; the creativity, persuasiveness and organization of their arguments; their responses to questions; the clarity of their presentations; and their overall demeanor.
Much of the content of students’ arguments involved whether or not the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which affirmed the right to marry as a fundamental right by constitutional clause, applies to unincorporated territories.
A 1922 case repeatedly raised at the competition, Balzac v. Porto Rico, determined that the entirety of the constitution does not automatically apply to areas under U.S. jurisdiction, which are not incorporated into the union. Instead some constitutional rights are bestowed by Congress.
“This is not a case about locality, personal beliefs or politics. It is a case about fundamental – truly fundamental – rights,” said CAHS student Rae’Niqua Victorine, representing the appellants in the third round. “Your honors, I have given you the hammer. Now please tear down these discriminatory walls that are barring my clients and other Virgin Islanders.”
Raven Phillips, a senior at IEKHS, presented an alternate opinion during round one, arguing that marriage is a “non-justiciable political question” because it is not explicitly written into the constitution. Phillips said same sex couples should be respected but so should the democratic process of local communities.
“It is clear that by taking the issue of same-sex marriage from the people and leaving it in the hands of the judiciary we effectively disenfranchise them,” argued Phillips. “More than anything, what I’m saying is that the appellants have brought their argument to the wrong venue.”
Students were reminded by moot court judges that local jurisdictions have been on the losing side of attempts to regulate marriage in the past, such as during the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia, which made race-based restrictions on marriages illegal.
Students were also challenged to incorporate into their arguments the ongoing federal case, Tuaua v. United States, which may eventually change the relationship of residents of U.S. territories with the U.S. Constitution.
At the end of the proceedings Tuesday, CAHS and IEKHS came away tied for first place. Both schools will head to the final round of the competition on Thursday where they will face off against two St. Croix schools to be determined during Wednesday’s round.
Kean student Sherkquan Henry, who represented the appellants, was given the award of best oralist by the judges.
Representing CAHS was Victorine, K’Mari McClean, Asel Mustafa, Mary-Alice Prosper, Graciela Samuel and Treston Benjamin.
Kean students participating were Phillips, Henry, Micaiah Bully, Harmonie Hanley, Jerry Thomas and Jashonique Greenaway.
Seventh Day Adventist School was represented by Khaleel Smith, Shane Austrie, Kevin King, Aliya Benjamin and Derrick Thomas.