Friday, December 10, 2004

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.

“It was exciting,” he said. “Having watched a lot of rounds of moot court. I was pretty sure they won, but I’m obviously biased. To hear these two members of the highest court of Britain declare them the winners … was very encouraging.”

Patrick Henry students David J. Shaw, 21, of Arlington Heights, Ill., and Kyle Pousson, 21, of Purcellville, also competed in the tournament. They were eliminated in preliminary rounds, but assisted Mr. du Mee and Miss Papke in researching for the final round.

Patrick Henry College is a liberal arts school with a student population of 277. It was founded in the fall of 2000 as a separate, tax-free institution by the Purcellville-based Home School Legal Defense Association, a nonprofit national membership organization of families who home-school their children.

The college graduated 40 students last May.

Since its opening, the school has experienced significant academic success and boasts student SAT and ACT scores comparable to the nation’s elite colleges. Many Patrick Henry students are required to work in an apprenticeship or internship, depending on their majors. Seven of the nearly 100 interns who worked at the White House last spring attended Patrick Henry.

Almost all of the students come from home-schooling backgrounds. The college’s namesake is a famous Virginian who also was a product of home schooling.

The U.S. students’ courtroom performance impressed their British counterparts. After the competition, the teams were treated to dinner by the Younger Society, a prestigious law group of past and present Balliol College students.

“They were good,” Mr. Graham said. “If I would’ve been in my mid-20s and had to appear in front of Supreme Court judges and be cross-examined by them, I imagine it would’ve been terrifying.”

The Oxford teams will visit the United States next spring for a rematch. The teams will argue another case based on U.S. law.

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