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High School Students, in Moot Competition, Argue a Supreme Court Case

The U.S. Supreme Court is still weighing an important First Amendment case about whether a church was wrongly denied a playground improvement grant under a Missouri program using recycled tires. 

But in the finals of a national moot court competition for high school students, there was a winner on Thursday: two students from Connecticut who argued in support of the church in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer.

Arjun Ahuja and Lucy Mini of Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn., won the National Virtual Supreme Court Competition after arguments at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. The runners-up were Jacklin Chang and Emma Austin of Lake Oswego High School in Lake Oswego, Ore., who argued on behalf of the state of Missouri. 

The competition is sponsored by two organizations that, among other things, teach high school students about the Supreme Court and the U.S. Constitution: the Harlan Institute and ConSource, both based in the nation's capital.

In the Virtual Supreme Court competition, teams of two students study the case, write briefs, and then go up against other teams via video in two early rounds. For the finals, the teams from Greenwich High and Lake Oswego High came to Washington to argue in the moot courtroom at Georgetown Law Center, which is outfitted to resemble the Supreme Court.

The students faced an impressive, and demanding, panel of nine "justices" that included Julie Silverbrook, the executive director of ConSource; Josh Blackman, the president of the Harlan Institute; Judge Andre M. Davis of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va.; Judge Meg Ryan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, in Washington; and U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth of Washington.

The two teams confidently made their arguments in the Trinity Lutheran case, which involves whether the state infringed the church's federal constitutional rights by denying a playground improvement grant based on a state constitutional provision that bars direct state aid to churches.

After the moot court arguments, the "justices" said they were impressed by the students' preparations and performance.

"When I think back to my high school days, if someone has asked me to read a Supreme Court case, and make a presentation about it, I could not have done it," said Davis.

They also offered pointers. The students often answered questions from the bench by quoting some of the Supreme Court's church-state rulings, but the students could have been more clear about where the Trinity Lutheran case fits among the court's precedents, several "justices" said. 

Blackman lauded the teams' teachers and said, "It gives me faith in our republic that we have young people who can do this."

Silverbrook said, "There are few moments in American history when we need to be more inspired by young people than now." 

The real Supreme Court heard arguments in the Trinity Lutheran case on April 19, with many observers perceiving support for the church's position among a majority of justices. A decision is pending.

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