For a baseball player, it would be like making a fast track to the majors and throwing against your idol, Derek Jeter or David Wright.
For Bayonne resident Christopher Keating, 26, a third-year student at the Seton Hall Law School, it was like that and more when he and his teammate argued a case before sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The exchange came during the final round of the Eugene Gressman Appellate Moot Court Competition at the university.
For Keating and his partner Karol Ruiz, it was the culmination of three months of work and more than 200 hours of preparation. Along that path, there was still no guarantee that they would wind up right where they were; two of the four finalists arguing their case before Sotomayor and two other judges last month.
Sotomayor presided, along with Judge Michael A. Chagares and Julio M. Fuentes, both of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The April 10 event was the championship round of an annual three-month, single-elimination, bracket-style moot court competition.
“I was lucky to work with one of the best students I could have,” Keating said of Ruiz. “She was incredible in every round of the competition.”
Keating and Ruiz competed through six rounds to emerge as the champions. In addition to meeting the justice and receiving university acclaim, the duo was also featured in the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker magazine’s May 12 issue.
According to Keating, the case they argued focused on a “fact pattern” in which the police searched a middle school teacher’s home and found child pornography. The search occurred following allegations that the teacher at the school had molested a child. The teacher eventually pleaded guilty to child pornography possession, but then decided to appeal her case.
The two issues on appeal centered on 4th Amendment protections from unconstitutional searches and seizures and the 6th Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.
“[It was] whether the search of the defendant’s home and seizure of the child pornography, based on evidence of the separate crime of child molestation, violated the defendant’s 4th amendment rights,” Keating said, “and whether the defendant’s right to effective assistance of counsel was violated when her counsel ignored her request to file an appeal almost a year after the defendant waived the right to appeal as part of a plea bargain agreement.”
In the exercise, both issues were yet to be settled by the Supreme Court, and it was possible that the Supreme Court could rule either way on the issues.
“In the final round, my partner and I argued on behalf of the government, seeking to convince the judges to affirm the lower courts’ decision and keep the defendant in prison for the remainder of her sentence,” Keating said. “Each of us spoke for at least 15 minutes, and I argued the 6th Amendment issue for my team. Ultimately, the 6th Amendment argument is procedural in nature and focused on nuances of the case law on which the court relied as precedent.”
Keating said the last round had been tough for him and his partner, since they had been arguing the opposite side previously.
“So it was difficult to master the other side of the argument for the final round,” he said.
Keating said that arguing before Justice Sotomayor was an “amazing” experience, and that he learned a lot from her in the short time in her presence.
Having his family there to celebrate his success capped the day.
“Both my parents were in attendance. They had just kind things to say, telling me they were proud of me,” Keating said. “It was great to enjoy the whole experience with them there.”
“The years of raising me and providing support through education is paying off,” he said. “My performance is a testament to them and everything they've done for me.”
He also believes that the stewardship he received earlier in his legal training helped plant the seeds for his achievement with the moot court.
Keating, a Bayonne native, attended Bailey School and then high school at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City. After graduating from St. Peter’s, he attended Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Before graduating from Rutgers in 2009, he was student government president his senior year.
After teaching in Newark as part of the Teach for America program, in 2011 he enrolled in Seton Hall Law, where he received a fellowship to serve as Seton Hall Law’s Center for Social Justice Urban Revitalization Scholar.
Keating will graduate on May 23.
Next year he will be the law clerk for the Honorable Lisa Vignuolo in the New Jersey Superior Court in New Brunswick.
“From there, the possibilities are endless,” Keating said.
Joseph Passantino may be reached at: JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.