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Morris Tyler Moot Court Hears Arguments and Renders Its Decision

"All rise!"

Three judges entered YLS's Levinson Auditorium, which had been altered into a fair imitation of a courtroom. The stage looked like a bench, with high-backed leather chairs for the judges. The students acting as counsel were positioned at two tables on either side of a lectern, wearing impeccable suits.

The judges, in full black robes, took their places.

"Oyez, oyez, the Morris Tyler Moot Court of Appeals is now in session."

The case under consideration was Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. John Doe, a challenge to Connecticut's sexual offender registry which was recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. (For background on the case and more information about the Morris Tyler Moot Court, see this earlier article.)

Alison Chase '03, one of the two attorneys for the petitioners, the Connecticut Department of Public Safety, approached the lectern first. She had 20 minutes to argue that the Connecticut statute, the Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA), did not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution. She started with two key points in her argument: first, she said, the intent of SORA was to create "a civil regulatory system," not a criminal system; second, the system "is not so punitive in effect" as to invoke the Ex Post Facto Clause.

Here, Chase was interrupted by the first question from the bench. Judge Diane Wood asked why the petitioners assumed that the test for whether a measure was punitive should be the same in ex post facto as that for double jeopardy. Chase replied that the basic concern with punishment was the same in ex post facto and double jeopardy cases. The rule already established for double jeopardy cases could be helpful in establishing "what is a civil sanction and what is a criminal sanction."

Chase concluded, "I don't think it is proper to question the intention of the Connecticut legislature in writing this law."

The next counselor to take the microphone was Michael Pieja '04, arguing on behalf of John Doe that the SORA did violate the Ex Post Facto Clause. Pieja opened with flair: "John Doe thought he had heard the last of the Connecticut Department of Public Safety." At the time Doe was convicted, "he didn't expect this to happen."

The judges watched Pieja attentively, leaning over the bench, occasionally taking notes. They wanted to know why Pieja considered the registry to be punitive. One judge asked how the registry was different from the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. With the most wanted list, Pieja argued, "there is an individualized determination that these people pose a danger." Pieja added that studies had shown that people placed on such a registry were more likely to lose their jobs and become unemployable.

Jud Mathews '04 next argued that placement on the registry did not violate a person's due process rights. The registry "facilitates public access to public records that promote public safety," he said. And he added that this was in concert with First Amendment values of free access to information.

The judges pointed out that the American tradition is to make individual assessments rather than judge people based on a class or group, and the registry listed all sex offenders without any distinction. Mathews replied, "No one makes the assumption from [the list] that every individual on it is dangerous." He emphasized that the state made no charge against an individual but merely made conviction information available.

Jonathan Kravis '04 was the last contestant to speak, and he argued that the registry was a due process violation because it defamed individuals. He claimed that the logic of the registry is that sex offenders are likely repeat offenders. Thus, calling these people "sex offenders" "is in effect labeling them likely dangers to the community."

One judge posited that the registry only told people information they wanted to know. Kravis responded that the information on the registry was inaccurate in two respects: one, some people labeled "sex offenders" on the registry are not actually dangerous; two, some people on the registry were not actually convicted of sexual offenses. The state can make judgments about groups of offenders, Kravis argued, but it can't apply that judgment to individuals without due process.

After a brief rebuttal by Mathews, the judges withdrew to consider their verdict. Jonathan Kravis won the Thurman Arnold Prize for best oral argument. The team of Jonathan Kravis and Michael Pieja won the Potter Stewart Prize for best overall team performance.