|by Howard W. Hewitt • October 26, 2004|
Wabash College sophomore Steven Rhodes saved his best for last.
Rhodes, a West Lafayette High School graduate, was named top orator during the College’s annual Moot Court competition Oct. 26 in Salter Hall.
Rhodes and freshman Matt Olivarez were advocates to junior Jacob Straub and senior Charles Lopez respondent position arguing a case involving federal sentencing guidelines.
"I felt like this was my strongest performance," said Rhodes, a Wabash chemistry major. "I was really, really surprised and thrilled. I think the questions from knowledgeable lawyers and judges who have been advocating all their life really provides a learning experience that’s just so valuable. It’s so much beyond what you could get - maybe even in the classroom setting."
The quality of the four finalists’ arguments impressed the judges’ panel chief justice. The Honorable John G. Baker, Indiana Court of Appeals, said afterwards he wanted first pick of any of the four participants as future law clerks.
"This is the first time I’ve had an occasion to judge undergraduates," the judge said. "I was particularly impressed with their grasp of the issues and their ability to handle themselves. I wasn’t being just ingratiating that I would have no trouble having these people make presentations on a daily basis. They were very accomplished.
"I’ve had occasion to do this with law students and new lawyers, but this is the first time with college students. I thought they acquitted themselves very well."
Wabash is one of the few undergraduate schools in the country to offer a Moot Court competition.
Baker was quick to challenge the students’ arguments and watch them think on their feet.
"The questions posed by the judges are really what make the process neat," said Rhodes (in photo with Baker, at left). "You almost get in sort of a discussion type setting that really helps you examine an issue. I think you come to a much better understanding of an issue by discussing it rather than simply having two opposing sides stand up and give a speech."
Wabash graduate Michael D. Keele ’78, Marion Superior Court, was also generous in his praise of the finalists and the Moot Court program.
"It’s only been here 11 years and I’m amazed it hasn’t been here longer," Keele said. "What a great opportunity for college students to participate in a format like this before real judges.
"Even though we were unanimous in our selection of Mr. Rhodes, it wasn’t an easy decision and we all concurred they all were very well prepared. As Judge Baker indicated, if we had lawyers that well prepared and with that appropriate demeanor appear in front of us regularly we’d be a lot happier and our job would be a lot easier."
The other two judges on the panel were Magistrate Judge Tim A. Baker, United States District Court, and Wabash College English Professor Warren Rosenberg.
For the winner, the Moot Court experience further validated his college choice.
"For me it came down to Purdue and Wabash," Rhodes said. "I felt I could become a more well-rounded individual by attending Wabash. Being able to participate in a competition like Moot Court, and parliamentary debate, and then doing some research in the chemistry department over the summer … a varied experience was what I was looking for. It’s been more than I could ever have imagined."
More than 75 Lawrence North High School students were part of the audience. The students are involved in a Constitutional Law class. They will stage their own Moot Court competition later in the school year and return to campus for the finals. The four Wabash finalists will act as judges for the LN competition.
Two of the high school students presented a plaque to Wabash College Associate Professor of Speech David Timmerman for his assistance to the their school's Moot Court program.