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Moot Court
Cadets 1st Class Zack Crippen, left, and Paulo Dutra pose at Chapman University Jan. 14 at the American Collegiate Moot Court Association national tournament. (U.S. Air Force Photo)
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Rookies rule representing Academy in moot court

Posted 1/20/2012   Updated 1/20/2012 Email story   Print story


by Davide Edwards
Public Affairs

1/20/2012 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The two-cadet Air Force Academy moot court team is making quite a case to have "beginner's luck" changed to "beginner's skill."

After all, luck doesn't explain the precedent-setting feats pulled off by Cadets 1st Class Paulo Dutra and Zack Crippen the past two months. Their participation in two American Collegiate Moot Court Association tournaments marked the Academy's first foray into this sort of competition.

But they did much more than just show up. Taking advantage of their dark-horse status, the cadets placed fourth at a December regional tournament in Orlando.

Seasoned opponents in well-established programs were stunned by the sensational debut of two complete rookies who had been preparing for only a few months.

That performance earned Dutra and Crippen a berth in the national tournament, held last weekend at Chapman University in California. Competing in a field of 80 teams, the Air Force Academy duo advanced to the round of 32 and a showdown with perennial champion Patrick Henry College.

In a 2-1 split decision, the judges awarded a narrow victory to the Patrick Henry team, which finished as champions.

"Being the first team is great, but being a winning team that understands the law was our goal in the first place," Dutra said. "Both of us (were) excited about the opportunity to showcase USAFA's intellectual strength at nationals."

Moot court competitions simulate oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Moot court is not as widely practiced as related activities such as mock trial and speech and debate.

The Air Force Academy regularly hosts mock trial competitions, and such exercises in legal practice are quite familiar to cadets studying law.

Moot court is a totally different ballgame, so to speak, on the national scene as well as at the Air Force Academy. The American Collegiate Moot Court Association was founded in 2001 by two Texans.

By the 2009-2010 competition season, participation in the regional qualifying tournaments had risen to 248 teams. Few, however, burst onto the scene with as much aplomb as the Air Force Academy.

"We weren't really sure what to expect," said Lt. Col. Jeremy Marsh, the law instructor who coached Dutra and Crippen. "We went in there with an open mind and just tried. These two cadets are pioneers; they're superstars in their class. It's very hard to argue in front of seasoned lawyers about the law."

Marsh said the cadets were required to know the intricacies of 25 Supreme Court cases. The material they studied in preparation for the competition filled a binder an inch thick, he said.

And if that wasn't enough, they needed to finish it all in a mere four months to be ready for the regional competition. Marsh said Dutra and Crippen made shouldering such an enormous burden look easy.

"Ultimately, every good oral argument in cases like this one ends up as conversation between counsel and the justice asking questions," Dutra said. "The questions they ask are typically geared toward how a decision rendered by a court will affect constitutional law and how it's interpreted."

Both cadets said they hope their participation will inspire succeeding cadets to make the Academy a household name at future competitions of this sort. They were well aware of both the price and the privileges of being first.

The results far surpass the modest goals they set, forcing future opponents to worry about what the Air Force Academy will do for an encore.

"As outgoing seniors, all we want to do is showcase our Academy as an excellent developer of critical thinking and poise under pressure," Dutra said.

If a precedent aligned with that standard hadn't been set before, it most certainly has now.

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