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The Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown Law

The Affordable Care Act. Same sex marriage. Greenhouse gases. These landmark cases differ in many ways, but they have one thing in common. They’ve all been rehearsed at Georgetown Law’s Supreme Court Institute — widely considered the gold standard for moot courts.

At one-quarter scale, the Supreme Court Institute’s (SCI) moot courtroom replicates the real Court down to the last detail: same carpet, same distance between the lectern and bench, and same clock.  But while oral arguments in the Supreme Court are limited to thirty minutes, advocates at SCI moots are questioned for roughly an hour to fully answer panelists’ questions.

In recent years, SCI has also mirrored the Court’s entire docket. “We are affecting almost every case that goes into argument. Somebody in that case has been mooted here ahead of time,” says SCI Faculty Director Steven Goldblatt. “In essence, the Supreme Court Institute is providing high quality input into how cases may be argued before the Court that may influence how cases are decided by the Court. It’s a win-win for everyone.” 

At SCI’s helm are Goldblatt, Executive Director Irv Gornstein and Director Dori Bernstein.  The moot court program assists both first-time Supreme Court advocates and the most experienced practitioners.  Former Solicitors General Paul Clement, Seth Waxman, Gregory Garre, and Professor Neal Katyal are frequent participants on both sides of the podium.  Current Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. regularly attends SCI moots when he will be representing the United States as amicus curiae in support of the party whose counsel is being mooted.

For every case mooted at SCI, Bernstein recruits five panelists from an elite list of Washington, D.C., attorneys, most of whom have Supreme Court litigation experience. Selecting the appropriate attorneys requires comprehensive knowledge of the legal community and the subtleties of a given case. “Dori set up a system for contacting people way in advance of the moot, getting them set for the moot and committed to the moot,” Gornstein says.  “So we’ve been able to stock our panels with five justices for almost every moot.”  

The better the advocates’ preparation, the better their arguments before the Court and the better the Court can rule on laws that shape our society. “I always try to get a balance between people who have argued before the Supreme Court, [have] briefing experience at the Court, and one or two junior people who very recently clerked at the Supreme Court,” Bernstein says. 

Advocates agree that SCI’s moots offer the highest level of preparation. “Dori is a wonder, absolutely dedicated to finding the very best mooters for any specific case. … She has a long institutional memory of who are good mooters,” Katyal says. “Irv [offers] different ways of thinking about the case, each one more brilliant than the last. He has such great strategic insight and practical insight, and even rhetorical. There really is no one quite like Irv around.”

Advocates may request a moot court at SCI once the Supreme Court announces that it has decided to hear a case. Because the Institute operates on a nonpartisan basis, only one side of a case is allowed to moot. If both sides ask for a moot within the first 24 hours after review is granted, Bernstein and Gornstein flip a coin; after that, moots are reserved on a first-come basis.

No other city surpasses the District’s concentration of legal talent with Supreme Court experience. “Because we draw on experienced Supreme Court advocates and people who are experienced in law firms that do a lot of Supreme Court work, they’re very familiar with the Court and with the kind of questions the Court is going to ask.  And they’re also very familiar with what kinds of answers and points are going to resonate with the Supreme Court justices,” Gornstein says. “We’re the most important moot court that someone is going to have. We’re the final stop for most people.”  

Local attorneys volunteer their time as public service by researching cases, reading briefs, and forming questions for advocates. Likewise, Georgetown Law offers the moot court without a fee as part of its tradition of public service. “We don’t want to take this program outside the reach of any lawyer, particularly public interest lawyers who wouldn’t have the financial wherewithal to do it [otherwise],” Goldblatt says.  

“I think it sends a good message to our students … to see all of these people devote their time and their energy to assist each other in preparing,” Bernstein says. “And I think it’s because people really do see it as a service to the Court, which ultimately is a service to our society.” 

SCI serves as a special learning experience for law students. All 1Ls attend a moot court as part of their Legal Research and Writing class. And any student who attends a moot can walk three blocks from campus to the Court the following week to hear the real thing. It’s a uniquely Georgetown experience. 

 “[Several of the justices] have commented that the Institute is responsible for contributing to the improvement in the arguments they’re hearing,” Gornstein says. With its singular place in the legal community, SCI further distinguishes Georgetown Law as a catalyst of legal discourse of the highest order.

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