Return to the Jessup
Reflections of a New Jessup Judge
It’s great to be back. Like so many things, the Jessup competition had to move online due to the pandemic but this year the Jessup is back in person. Undoubtedly there are advantages to hosting events and gatherings (also) online – and this topic has been quite comprehensively canvassed in recent years – but I was certainly pleased to see the hustle and bustle of the teams and judges arriving and to meet people again in real life. The German National Rounds of the Philip C. Jessup mooting competition took place on 1-4 March this year.
Having competed in 2015 for the first team of the Hertie School, this was my first year as a judge and I was certainly thrilled to pick up my badge and meet the fellow judges, many of which are renowned academics and actual judges. I really enjoyed the conversations in the Judges’ room and over dinner and between the rounds. I am grateful to the the organisers – especially Pierre Thielbörger, Mark Dawson and Vincent Widdig and the sponsors for making this possible – and wanted to share some brief reflections with the Jessup community.
The Hertie School hosted the German National Rounds this year and it was good to see familiar faces again but also to meet many new people. To me, law and policy are really two sides of the same coin and I am very glad the Hertie School joined the Jessup circuit all those years ago, not least because the Jessup turned out to be quite a decisive juncture in my own professional life. I remember the excitement of the competition well and saw it in the teams eagerly waiting to pick up opponent memorials, the intense emotions when results were announced and the special buzz that only the Jessup can create.
The View from the Bench
It struck me, as I sat with very engaging and engaged co-Judges, quizzing the various agents for Applicant and Respondent that this is a decidedly unique discipline. Few Courts in real life – dare I say no Courts? – would have quite so many questions. Yes, I have met interventionist Judges in real Court rooms – but not quite to this extent. This is what makes advocacy in the Jessup so unique – the students who excel must be able to think quickly on their feet, adjust arguments and deal with a very active Bench indeed. While this may be daunting, the intention behind this exercise is always to make the student a better advocate. The ability to think quickly on your feet will be useful in many life situations. From this side of the bench, I can assure participants that the judges are much friendlier and more approachable than you might assume based on the flurry of questions you sometimes encounter.
I was very pleased to see the considerable effort made by the organisers and judges to create diverse benches. It is undoubtedly important that a bench is relatively representative of the population it strives to serve. I see the great progress that has been made here in the last years and I am sure more will follow. It is of course important that this is more than a token or symbolic effort and I am convinced it is. As a bench we are meant to act as role models and the warm welcome I experienced as a novice judge and the stellar performances of so many female participants and participants with non-traditional backgrounds makes me intensely optimistic about the future.
To Win and to Lose: A Note on Self-Worth
Lawyers tend to be quite a hard-nosed bunch of people and I am well familiar with the ideal of the unshakable, un-exhaustible, witty, brilliant, undoubtedly always successful and deeply flawless advocate. If I am permitted a brief sidebar here: that person is a fiction. The law is a competitive profession, and the Jessup certainly draws in ambitious young minds eager to prove themselves, and that is a wonderful thing. However, when you give yourself and so much of your time to a project, it is very easy to deeply entangle what you do with who you are. In a world where someone has to win, and someone has to lose that can be unhelpful and sometimes downright dangerous. Therefore, and at the risk of going completely Brené Brown on a community not very used to that treatment, it seems crucial to point out that you, dear past, present or future Jessup participant, are so much more than your performance in this competition. This is one part of your life, undoubtedly an important part, but there is so much more to you. Your worth and potential do not hinge on this competition. If you took home prizes – well done! If you didn’t – that is no comment on your inherent worthiness or even your potential to become a great advocate. The important thing is that you learnt something – about the law, advocacy, difficult judges, and yourself. Obviously these points do not only apply to Jessup participants.
International Law in Dark Times
It is a trite observation that these are troubled times we live in. The flame of international justice is certainly flickering but it is needed more than ever. I am far less certain than I used to be that, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”. The arc sometimes seems very long indeed, and it certainly seems to be in need of help. Former Attorney General of the US, Eric Holder, cautioned that “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.” I agree. There is nothing inevitable about progress, safeguarding of rights or peace. Recent setbacks have come in various forms and sizes, and include the invasion of Ukraine, the decision to overturn Roe v Wade and the embattled position many Courts find themselves in (e.g., in Israel).
Therefore, it was very encouraging to see so many people – participants, judges, coaches, organisers, bailiffs, and everyone else who made the Jessup competition this year possible – commit to an event that has international law at its heart. An internationally recognised rules-based system that allows states to settle their differences in a Court rather than on a battlefield still seems to be an ideal many people can rally behind. The Jessup is a wonderful opportunity for a community to come together, to make friends, to build skills, to learn about international law of course and to affirm the importance of the rule of law. So, wherever we all end up on our journey within and with the law, I hope we all will manage to bend and pull that arc a little bit more, just a little bit more, towards justice.