Dan Joyner: Why I Won’t Attend the Jessup Competition Again
[The following is a guest post by Dan Joyner, Professor of Law at the University of Alabama. Our thanks to him for contributing it.]
So, as you probably guessed from the title of this post, it’s going to be a bit of a rant. But this has been festering inside me for the past five years and I want to get it out. I’m on a plane right now flying back from the U.S. Midwest Regional of the Jessup International Law Moot Court competition in Chicago with my team. I’ve been the faculty advisor for the Jessup team at Alabama for the past five years. During that time, my team has competed in Miami, Houston, and Chicago, as well as in the international rounds in D.C. I’ve gone with my team every year to each one of these venues. So I’ve seen a lot of the Jessup process, in a number of different venues in the U.S., and I’ve put in A LOT of my own time coaching my team and travelling with them. And here I mean A LOT of my own time. Many, many hours advising them as they research their memorials, then three to four per week oralist round practice sessions in the lead up to the regional.
I have noticed over the years that, at least at the regional locations we’ve been in, not many of my international law faculty colleagues have accompanied their teams as I have done. Some have, to be sure. But more often than not, their students are either there by themselves, or they are accompanied by a non-faculty team coach. And in my anecdotal conversations with students from other schools’ teams, it is usually the case that they have not been coached seriously by the international law faculty members at their law school. I now think that these faculty colleagues in international law at other schools have been much wiser than I have in this regard.
I have learned over the past five years through sorely frustrating experience that the Jessup competition is not in fact an international law moot court competition, notwithstanding this being stated in its name. This is, in fact, simply false advertising for the competition. In reality, Jessup is just another law student moot court competition in which style trumps substance, and where good used car salesmen typically come out on top. As such, the Jessup competition is simply not worth any serious investment of time by those of us who actually care about the substance, rigor and correctness of international legal analysis and argumentation. Frankly, sometimes I think my students could be citing to sources of Kryptonian law, and if they did so confidently and persuasively, they would be just as well off.
The clearest evidence for this conclusion is that if, counterfactually, the Jessup competition was in fact about international law, then it would be staffed by memorial and oralist round judges who themselves had a decent knowledge of international law. In my experience at all of the regional rounds in the U.S. at which my team has participated over the past five years, this has definitely not been the case. Instead, the judges of both the memorials and the oralist rounds overwhelmingly appear to consist of pretty much anyone ILSA can persuade to come in from their commercial real estate, environmental zoning, or bankruptcy practice for a day or two, put on a black robe, and pretend they’re a judge on the ICJ. Now, I know that individually all of these judges are well meaning, and I don’t mean this to be an attack on them. But every year I’m baffled when the judges introduce themselves, after having critically evaluated the arguments of my students, whom I’ve been training in international law for the past year, by how clearly unqualified they are to have passed judgment on my students, who have manifestly forgotten more about international law than the judges will ever know.
Again, I’m not meaning to slight the judges here. They are well meaning and are not to blame in any way. I’m just making the point that, at least at the U.S. regional venues I’ve attended, the judges have been totally unqualified to judge international legal arguments. And this then necessarily results in the competition being one of style, and the subjective vicissitudes of the judges’ tastes. I have seen this time and time again. Our opposing teams will spout absolutely rubbish legal arguments, but will do it in an apparently pleasing manner to the judges, while my students make careful, well researched and supported legal arguments, and ultimately lose the round. What’s clearly happening in these cases is that the judges simply can’t tell good international legal argumentation from bad. So with the legal issues being necessarily extraneous to the process, a range of subjective and stylistic factors become the basis for the judges’ ultimate determinations of a round winner. In fact, I’m convinced that my efforts to teach my students thorough international legal research and argumentation has actually hurt them at Jessup. This is because the judges, who don’t themselves know what the proper use of international legal sources is, clearly have their own closed universe of sources and arguments listed for them in their bench brief and score sheet. And wo betide the team that presents perfectly valid and supported arguments that don’t use the sources in the distributed batches of materials. Again, I’ve seen this happen multiple times.
When this happens, and it happens every year, I have to retreat to a mental Lotus position and try not to have a heart attack. Every year after the regional competition, I have about two days of this, trying to remind myself that it’s only a student competition, and that my students are still getting a lot out of it (which, to be fair, they are). But every year I also have to watch my students come to the same painful realization that I have come to over the past five years – that all of their hard work and all of their time spent learning correct principles of international law has in the end been completely irrelevant to the outcome of the competition for them. This upsets me.
Again, I think that most of my international law faculty colleagues figured this out a long time ago, and that’s why they don’t waste their time trying to teach correct principles of international law and rigorous legal argumentation to their schools’ Jessup teams. I’m sure they support their teams, and maybe judge a practice round or two. But they know that in the end their team will rise or fall based on factors wholly unrelated to their deep knowledge of the law. As such, if anyone at their law schools coach their Jessup teams, it will typically be a non-faculty member.
And just so you know, I’ve said all of this to Jessup administrators in the past. They inevitably respond that they do the best they can with the resources they have to work with in regional competition cities like Houston or Miami. I’m sure that’s true. So I’m not really attacking the Jessup administration here. I’m just finally realizing that, despite the Jessup administration’s best efforts, and despite the judges’ good intentions, the Jessup competition still sucks as an international law moot court competition. At best it’s just a moot court competition where students sometimes mention international law.
But I have finally learned my lesson and intend to act on it. I’ll still coach my team at Alabama. I’ll teach them correct principles of international law and rigorous international legal argumentation to the best of my ability. I’ll do this for them, for pedagogical reasons, and for me because I still learn and grow through the process. But I won’t attend another regional Jessup competition round. I just can’t stand to watch the travesty happen again and again. I just don’t need the yearly frustration. In that, I’ll join my wiser colleagues who figured Jessup out long ago.