Upstart Virginia team beats Oxford in debate

England’s Oxford University is widely known for producing some of the world’s best debaters, such as British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

But last weekend, the school’s moot court team was defeated by two former home-schoolers from a small Virginia college named after American Revolution patriot and orator Patrick Henry.

Matt du Mee, 22, and Rayel Papke, 21, who attend Patrick Henry College, pulled off a victory against their British competitors in the first moot court tournament between one of the world’s most renowned universities and the 4-year-old Christian college in Purcellville.

Andrew Graham, master of Balliol College at Oxford, said Thursday the United States victory did not surprise him because the students were well prepared.

“It was a fine judgment and a difficult situation,” said Mr. Graham in a telephone interview from his office in England. “There were extraordinarily impressive performances. Both teams were very polished, very professional and very well prepared.”

The fierce three-day competition held on Oxford’s campus judged the students on a set of criteria, including debating skills, presentation and courtroom demeanor. Eight students competed in the event, four of them from Patrick Henry.

The students, who competed in four two-member teams, had to argue a fictitious breach-of-contract case involving millionaire Foghorn Leghorn who sued sculptor Melvin Muttley over a disputed purple boll weevil statue.

The students had to argue the case before Thomas Henry Bingham of Cornhill, the senior law lord of the United Kingdom, whose position is equivalent to that of the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice. Brian Hutton, who serves as a lord of appeal, also judged the event. The men are distinguished alumni of Balliol, one of the most prestigious law schools in England.

Mr. du Mee, of Peoria, Ariz., and Miss Papke, of Queen Creek, Ariz., had a month to prepare their arguments and learn the intricacies of British contract law, a set of judicial fiats about which neither student knew much.

“We didn’t really have any parallels or anything we could work off of,” Mr. du Mee said. “We just had to buckle down and learn the material.”

The students also had to adjust to the British form of moot court competition, which meant they had to learn new forms of legal address. The Patrick Henry students addressed their British competitors as “my learned friend opposite” and the judges as “my Lord,” instead of “your Honor.”

The last day of competition stretched into the evening hours, which forced the students to argue their case by candlelight since the competition took place in Balliol Hall, one of the oldest on campus.

Mr. du Mee said his team was the underdog going into the competition, but the tide began to turn during the last round.

“It was really exhilarating because by the time we got to our last speech,” he said. “I felt like we really had a good chance of winning.”

Michael Farris, president of Patrick Henry College and coach of its moot court teams, said he was thrilled with his students’ victory.

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