By David Halbrook; pictures by Noah Oberlander
Patrick Henry College
PHC's 2011 ACMA nationals competitors. Back row (L to R): Kayla Griesemer, Noah Oberlander, Mackenzi Siebert, Shannon Healy, Joanna Griffith, Bridget Degnan, Andrew Ferguson, Jonathan Carden, Tait Deems, Adam Fisher, Logan Spena, J.C. Cartee. Front row (L to R): Dr. Frank Guliuzza, Aaron Kamakawiwoole, Brett Harris, Alex Harris, Blake Meadows, Dr. Michael Farris
Building on an increasingly formidable legacy of success in collegiate legal debate, Patrick Henry College traveled to New Orleans, January 14-15, and brought home the College’s fifth national moot court championship in the past seven years. The victory at the ACMA 2011 National tournament at Tulane University Law School was PHC’s third championship in a row, eclipsing its own record of back-to-back championships in 2005 and 2006 when the College won its first two titles. In ACMA's 11-year history, no other school has won more than one national championship.
First place this past weekend went to the College’s already high-profile team of Alex and Brett Harris, best-selling authors of Do Hard Things and co-founders of The Rebelution.com, competing in their first year of formal collegiate moot court. The Harris brothers defeated the team of Willem Daniel and Rachel Shonebarger from the College of Wooster, PHC’s stiff perennial competition at nationals. Other teams competing included Baylor University, the University of Texas, Dallas, Fitchburg State University, Cal State University-Fullerton (and Long Beach), Texas A&M University, and Arkansas State University.
“It was just an overall team win,” said Brett. “Alex and I both felt so supported the whole way through by our teammates helping us with arguments, cheering for us and encouraging us. I was very surprised, knowing there were so many teams from PHC that deserved to win and could have won. It was just a very real sense that we’re here together to bring home a championship.”
Third place went to Jonathan Carden and Joanna Griffith, who, interestingly, beat the Harris brothers in the qualifying regional tournament in Tampa, Florida. Two other PHC teams, Blake Meadows and Kayla Griesemer and Bridget Degnan and Tate Deems, made it to the “Sweet Sixteen” quarterfinals, the latter duo losing to the eventual second-place team from the College of Wooster.
“Every team we saw at nationals was a championship-caliber team,” reports Jonathan Carden, PHC’s student body president, who as a freshman competed and placed third at moot court nationals in Des Moines. “Our goal as a team was that, while someone might be better than us and beat us, no team would be better prepared than us. Getting to return to nationals and competing at that level is definitely a rewarding feeling.”
Another PHC tournament highlight was the outstanding individual orator performances of freshman Blake Meadows and junior Bridget Degnan, who won first and third place speaking trophies, respectively. Meadows won the top speaker trophy with a record-breaking 396.83 points out of a potential 400 points, while Degnan also broke the previous record with 386 points.
Jonathan Carden (L) and Joanna Griffith converse with Alex and Brett Harris
Added Dr. Frank Guliuzza, PHC Professor of Government and moot court coach: “Each year it gets more difficult to be successful at this tournament, because you’re starting to get teams that are very evenly matched. Yet in this environment the Harris brothers made a lasting impact on the judges by the way they carried themselves and with their amazing mental agility. More importantly, they understood that there are things more important than winning a tournament, and that gave them the right perspective.”
For Dr. Farris, this year’s victory had special resonance, not simply because most of the moot veterans from last year’s team had graduated, leaving a more inexperienced and, some thought, vulnerable squad, but also because he has a long history with both the Harris twins and with third-place finisher Jonathan Carden.
“I’ve known the Harris twins literally since the day they were born,” he recalls of his long relationship with the brothers’ father, homeschool pioneer Gregg Harris. “Their dad and I were speakers at a homeschool conference on the weekend they were born, and we had to switch places when their mother went into labor.
“And Jonathan’s dad (Jim) was one of our original HSLDA board members and my best friend, so there were just lots of levels of personal relationships here that make it special. In my pre-tournament picks, I thought that Jonathan and his partner, Joanna, and the Harris brothers, all had a great chance to win. Listening to Joanna speak is like listening to velvet-covered silk, simply a pleasure to listen to. Jonathan is a brilliant conversationalist, talking to the judges just like he would talk to you and I, which is the whole art of moot court – being able to make a persuasive argument in a conversational tone.”
As for the Harris brothers’ victory, Dr. Farris credited their polished, conversational manner and extraordinary experience as media-savvy founders of a national grassroots youth outreach, The Rebelution.com, which the twins have defined as “a teenage rebellion against the low expectations of an ungodly culture.”
“I’ve never seen a team interact with the judges quite as effectively as they did in the final round,” he said. “They addressed the particular judges by their names, as in ‘your honor’s question reflects…’, and took it to a new level. On that attribute alone, their interaction was the best I’ve ever seen.”
In their argument debating the real-life pros and cons of Affordable Health Care Act (AHCA), Brett said their strategy was to “boil everything down to simple ideas and analogies that would stick in the mind of any judge, taking things out of their legal context and putting it in a more day-to-day context.” Citing the Affordable Health Care Act and the Commerce Clause, wherein Congress has sought to mandate that 40 million uninsured Americans purchase health insurance or pay a penalty equal to the cost of health insurance, he said, “we framed it as an analogy whereby Congress is, in essence, saying, ‘pay a fine or be fined.’ It seemed to stick in their minds.”
Adds brother Alex: “Having read about PHC’s successes in moot court prior to coming here, and having been on campus welcoming home the teams that took national championships the last couple of years, it felt very surreal to be in that position. It was also very eye-opening to see the level of hard work required and the amount of God’s grace and blessing needed to be in position to accomplish something like that as a school. In spite of PHC’s dominance in this arena, you quickly see that it’s not just an inevitable thing. When you’re actually at the tournament watching these other incredible PHC teams, some who are at an even higher caliber than us, losing in split decisions, you realize what a blessing it is to represent the school in the final round.”
As for what comes next for the best-selling authors who have another year at PHC in front of them, Alex said that partnering with his brother in moot court galvanized the blessing of their unique relationship.
“Brett and I have always been amazed to see how well we work together,” he said. “We’ve always believed that God made us twins for a reason, and we’ve had the greatest success when we have collaborated as a team. This experience of winning a national championship re-emphasized that and caused us to value even more the opportunity to work together in whatever God puts before us.”