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Iowa Supreme Court Day turns 90!

At 90 years old, one of Iowa Law’s most cherished traditions is still going strong.

On Sept. 7, the Boyd Law Building will once again host the Iowa Supreme Court for its annual Supreme Court Day. Justices will hear arguments in Levitt Auditorium in the morning, and that afternoon, student advocates will present a moot case before the justices. That evening, College of Law faculty will host dinners for the justices and students.

“It’s one of my favorite days,” says Justice Thomas D. Waterman, a 1984 Iowa Law graduate. “It’s a great combination of events.”

According to the April 11, 1928 edition of the Daily Iowan, the inaugural Supreme Court Day was held on April 12, 1928 in the house chamber of the Old Capitol Building. Iowa Supreme Court Justices E.G. Albert and Henry J. Wagner were scheduled to preside over an argument provided by the law club.

Supreme Court Day was a replacement for the former Law Jubilee, which began in 1917, according to John C. Gerber’s “A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa.” The Law Jubilee consisted of “an evening of satirical skits and musical numbers,” but later gained a reputation for “rowdiness and poor taste,” Gerber writes. It was discontinued in 1926.

These days, Supreme Court Day serves as a valuable teaching tool for first-year law students, says Caroline Sheerin, Professor of Legal Analysis, Writing & Research. Students in LAWR are learning how to read, synthesize and analyze the law before ultimately applying that knowledge to advocate for their positions and answer questions.

“We really benefit as teachers of first-year students in that they can take what they’re learning in the classroom and see it in action,” Sheerin says of Supreme Court Day. “They can see how the product they’ve been working on comes out in this oral argument. It gives them a glimpse of the end of the road, at the very beginning of the road.”

Supreme Court Day also offers a more accurate depiction of oral advocacy, which is different from what is often depicted in pop culture, Sheerin says.

“It’s not about dazzling the listener, it’s about educating the listener,” she says. “It’s a conversation in which you are educating the court on your client’s case.”

Waterman says the court will typically hear a case in front of the students that involves significant public interest and will be argued by well-versed attorneys. Past cases have involved attorney-client privilege in an employment discrimination case, and the issue of whether the statements of a domestic abuse victim who no longer wished to cooperate with authorities could be used to convict a defendant.

This year, the justices will hear Banilla Games, Inc. vs. the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, which will determine whether an electronic device distributed by Banilla is a game of skill or a gambling device. The outcome will determine how that device is regulated.

“We’re a hot bench. We’re very interactive with the lawyers,” says Waterman. “We interrupt them with a lot of tough questions. It requires them to be very familiar with the governing law. They have to master all of that and be ready for any question. It’s a good example of intensive preparation and thinking on your feet.”

In the afternoon, four students will present oral arguments on a moot court case written by Iowa Law student Olayinka Ope concerning plea deals and immigration consequences.

“She’s come up with a pretty unique scenario and I’m looking forward to the advocates arguing it before the court,” says Sean Lancaster, 3L and Executive Director of Moot Court.

Lancaster says the students - who are 3Ls and are the top advocates, oralists or brief writers based on their performance in an appellate advocacy competition – have had several weeks to write briefs and prepare for oral arguments before the justices.

“It’s quite a lot of work,” he says. “It’s a great honor and I think it really helps the advocates grow in their legal skills, as well.”

Students will have the opportunity to speak with justices informally throughout the day and meet with them in the evening during the faculty-hosted dinners. At dinner, students can ask the justices about their careers, work-life balance or what it’s like to be a judge.

“Sometimes these will go on well past normal bedtimes,” Waterman says.

Sheerin says Supreme Court Day is a “pressure-free” way for students to engage with the Iowa Supreme Court and practicing attorneys, while also getting an important glimpse at the skills they’ll be learning in the classroom. They also learn that even the most skilled attorneys sometimes get stumped.

Those sorts of lessons are “invaluable,” Sheerin says.

“It’s so important we have this tie to our Iowa Supreme Court,” she says. “It’s so important we have this tie to our practicing bar. It brings a lot of the reality home to our students.”

Contact: Lee Hermiston