SIU Moot Court team captures national child welfare/adoption law title

Third-year SIU School of Law students, from left, Joseph Strater, Sophia Allen and Caitlynne Dixon won the recent 2023 National Child Welfare and Adoption Law Moot Court competition. (Photo provided)

Working together and knowing one another’s strengths is critical to success in any team activity, even apart from sports, as Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s School of Law moot court team knows well.

Third-year (3L) law students Sophia Allen, Caitlynne Dixon and Joseph Strater used their hours of research, writing and numerous oral practice rounds over nearly four months — while maintaining regular class loads — to capture the 2023 National Child Welfare and Adoption Law Moot Court championship.

Hosted by Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, the March 17-18 competition featured 24 teams from 18 different schools and 11 states. The final round oral arguments were at the Ohio Supreme Court.

‘Ready for anything’

Allen, Dixon and Strater reached the quarterfinals as second-year students in 2022. This year, team members estimated more than 80 hours of writing, editing and rewriting the appellate brief before submitting it to judges in late January, and then practicing their oral presentations three to five times a week for about seven weeks with local attorneys and SIU Law faculty serving as mock judges. Because the competition was at the end of SIU’s spring break, the team stayed in Carbondale leading to the event and practiced at the law school most days, Dixon said.

“In a competition like this, it is important to be able to understand both sides of the arguments and be able to give helpful responses to all questions asked by the panel of judges,” said Cheryl Anderson, professor and moot court program director. “Caitlynne, Sophia and Joe took the constructive feedback they received seriously, and by the time we went to the competition, they were ready for anything.  Every round they argued, they got better and better, even as they went up against stronger and stronger teams from schools across the country.”

Hypothetical case involved visitation rights

The hypothetical case involved a biological, custodial mother of a child appealing a court order that required her to permit a former caretaker to have regular visitation with the child. The caretaker argued that her relationship with the child went beyond paid helper to that of a “de facto” parent; that is, someone who fills the parental role even though there is no biological, marital or adoptive relationship. The mother argued a state statute that permitted courts to order visitation by “a grandparent, great grandparent, stepparent, or other family member” did not permit visitation by a person who claimed de facto parentage status, and even if it did, such an order would violate her fundamental right to direct the care, custody and control of her child protected under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, Anderson explained.

The team did not know which side they would advocate for until the competition.

Teamwork is essential

Allen, who earned Best Final Round Oralist, noted that the need to work together to make arguments cohesive. While a brief is written by the entire team, two members argue in each oral argument round and be ready to argue either side of the case.

“All three of us have to work together, or our arguments would not be cohesive,” said Allen, who is from Lexington, Kentucky. “The more cohesive we are, the harder it is for opposing teams to poke holes in our argument. I think our biggest strength is how well we work together. We were on the same page from the onset, and we all worked hard on the problem.”

The team’s “great ability” to work together efficiently and each person carry out specific duties was a strength, Strater said.  

Dixon and Allen argued for the mother in five of the seven preliminary rounds; Allen and Strater argued for the caretaker in one preliminary round and the final round.

This year, there was a shared team goal of advancing past the quarterfinals, Dixon said.

“Joe, Sophia and I made a strong team because we had defined roles, responsibilities and collective goals,” said Dixon, who is from O’Fallon, Missouri. “Because the three of us worked together last year, we knew what was expected of each person and how to highlight our skills.”

Time management is ‘crucial’

Time management is crucial to being successful at moot court “as you need to be prepared as possible to compete,” said Strater, who is from Monticello, Illinois. To ensure he was prepared, Strater said he spent 40 hours working on the team’s brief and updated his argument according to practice feedback.

Moot court provides 2 credit hours when there is a competition, but much more time is spent preparing, Allen said.

“We were always working on our arguments outside of class and practice,” said Allen, who is also an associate justice on the moot court board.  “All of us also had work and leadership obligations outside of class and moot court as well. Keeping a detailed planner is essential. As 3Ls, we knew what to expect schedule-wise this year, so that definitely helped. Nonetheless, moot court takes time and dedication, but it is worth it.”

Dixon also works part-time, serves as chief justice of the moot court board and is an assistant in the law school’s Juvenile Justice Clinic. She kept a daily planner and prioritized tasks, noting that she is a firm believer of the saying “you can always make time to do the things you want to do if you want it enough.”

Attracted to SIU School of Law

Anderson said she knows that once Allen, Dixon and Strater graduate they “are going to do exceptional work representing their clients.”

Strater, who earned his undergraduate degree in history education from Millikin University, said he was “impressed by the school’s dedication to the public” with its many clinics. He was interested in the child welfare and adoption law competition because it regularly includes constitutional issues. Strater said, in general, he is interested in pursuing defense work after graduation “as I have a great passion for advocating for the accused.”

Dixon, who earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Murray State University, said SIU’s “tight-knit community and small class size” attracted her.

“I value relationships with peers and professors and was drawn to the SIU School of Law because of the familiar welcoming and supportive atmosphere,” Dixon said. She is interested in pursuing family law because of her experience in the moot court competitions and the law school’s legal clinics and is also interested in personal injury because of her work experience with a firm in St. Louis.

Allen, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English and political science from Georgetown College, is pursuing a career as a prosecutor. Her Supreme Court Rule 711 license allows her to participate in court cases under the supervision of a licensed attorney at the Jackson County State’s Attorney’s Office. She also competes in intramural trial and opening statement competitions, all which Allen said factors in honing oral advocacy skills.

“Moot court pushes you to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” said Allen, who was fourth best preliminary round oralist in the competition in 2022. “Public speaking does not come easily to everyone, especially when you are fielding questions from judges. I think it also helps with developing a legal mind because you are practicing putting together complex legal arguments and putting those into both brief and oral format.”

Strong moot court history

The law school generally participates in four to six competitions a year, and in most cases, will send one team each of third- and second-year students, Anderson said. In preparing for competitions, 3L students help mentor 2L students during oral argument preparations.

“SIU has a long track record of strong performances in national moot court competitions, with many advocates being recognized as top speakers and top brief writers,” Anderson said.

Participating in moot court “forces you to work on a problem until you have it as perfect as possible,” Strater said. “Moot court is a great experience for teaching you how to think on your feet.”

In this competition, a team of second-year SIU School of Law students — Alicia Bridges, Kate Bauer and Nick Limentato, also reached the elimination tournament in their first national competition.

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