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Morris Tyler Moot Court Competition at YLS

The case of "HUD v. Rucker" was argued on Tuesday, December 18, 2001. The case was real. The judges who heard it were real. But the court was moot.

It was the final round of competition for the Morris Tyler Moot Court of Appeals at Yale.

"HUD v. Rucker" is an active case that the Supreme Court has accepted for review. It turns on a rule adopted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that allows HUD to evict families in public housing if any member of a household is involved in drug activity. This policy is based on a provision in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which states "any drug-related criminal activity on or off such premises, engaged in by a public housing tenant, any member of the tenant's household, or any guest or other person under the tenant's control, shall be cause for termination of tenancy."

Pearlie Rucker, a 63-year-old Oakland resident, challenged the rule after a housing authority attempted to evict her because her mentally disabled daughter was found with crack cocaine several blocks away from the housing development where they lived. Rucker had taken actions, such as monitoring her daughter's behavior and searching her room, to prevent her from using drugs. She was not aware of her daughter's activities away from the home.

The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Rucker, deciding that the statute did not authorize the eviction of tenants who did not have reason to know about the drug-related activity of members of their household.

On behalf of the petitioner, HUD, stood Carissa Byrne '02 and Zachary Richter '03. The counsel for the respondents, representing Rucker in this hypothetical forum, were Jo Ern Chen '03 and Michael Morley '03.

These four were finalists in a process that began early in the term. They had passed through two previous rounds by briefing and making oral arguments on a separate case. They then had to research "HUD v. Rucker" for the final round and write 35-page briefs outlining their arguments. The oral presentation would be the last step.

According to Daniel Marx '02, one of the chairs of the Morris Tyler Moot Court, there are both written and oral components to the competition, "because great appellate advocacy requires both skills." He adds that people who watch the arguments "don't realize how much work it is." Contestants have to research, practice, write, and rehearse before they speak a word.

The conditions and requirements of the moot court mimic a real appellate court as closely as possible. And for the final round, they had three genuine appeals court judges--Marsha Berzon from the Ninth Circuit, Merrick Garland from the D.C. Circuit, and Bruce Selya from the First Circuit--performing in the role of justices. The three eminences, wearing black robes and seated behind a dais, transported some of the gravity of a real courtroom to the auditorium.

Each contestant was allotted twenty minutes to speak, and Carissa Byrne opened the arguments with her presentation on behalf of HUD. She delivered the formalities of introducing herself and began her argument that the standard set by a previous case allowed HUD to evict Rucker, when she was interrupted by a question from one of the judges. The judges queried Byrne about the exact meaning of the language in the statute and whether it was ambiguous. Byrne maintained, "The most important thing to note is that HUD's interpretation of the statute is exactly in line with Congress's intent."

The judges acted as a "hot bench," frequently interrupting the presenters with questions, probing the weaknesses of their arguments. And, as another of the moot court chairs, Robert Kry '02, pointed out, the judges on the panel do this every day--they are experts at it. If a contestant makes a mistake, "they will nail you on it," he said.

Jo Chen approached the lectern next to represent the respondents. He argued that HUD's understanding of the statute was misguided, stating that "legislative history provides guidance for this court." He argued that the congressional record showed that "this statute was intended to get at drug dealers," and not innocent tenants.

Zachary Richter was next for the petitioner. He made the case that "evictions under this statute are consistent with due process." He pointed out that HUD had an established procedure for evictions, and evictees were given some opportunity to challenge the decision. Furthermore, he said, "there is no constitutional right to low-cost housing . . . minimal scrutiny is appropriate because we are dealing with an apportionment of welfare benefits."

Michael Morley gave the last presentation, arguing that the eviction of Rucker was an "egregious" mistake. He asked, "If you can't go to public housing, where else are you going to live?" And he declared it wrong, and a violation of due process, for Rucker to be subjected to a punishment "based on the behavior of another."

The judges withdrew to consider criteria such as use of authorities, articulation of the argument, deference to the judges, and tone of voice. When they returned to the bench, they declared the contest to be "very evenly matched." They awarded the Potter Stewart Prize, which is given to the team that most persuasively argued their case in the brief and the oral presentation, to Carissa Byrne and Zachary Richter. The Thurman Arnold Prize for best oral argument went to Michael Morley.

The only question remaining is how the Supreme Court will handle what the Morris Tyler Court has already mooted.