Holley and Peifer Win Lile Moot Court Competition

March 10, 2009

Third-year law students Benjamin Holley and Lee Peifer won the 80th Annual William Minor Lile Moot Court Competition on Saturday, completing a two-year process that ended with them arguing a case in front of a panel of federal appeals court judges.

The pair competed in the final against Aaron Shepherd and Landon Allred, who were awarded best brief in the competition.

“The real strength of the competition is the quality of the competitors. We had really great opponents every step of the way,” said Peifer, who was named best oralist of the competition. 

During the finals, Holley and Peifer argued a fictitious case involving a defendant who had exhausted all of his direct appeals, but tried to raise new claims during his habeus corpus proceeding after the discovery of a sentencing error.

In the scenario, prosecutors conceded the error, but fought the appeal on procedural grounds, saying the allowable time in which to raise such issues had expired.

“Basically the defendant hadn’t complied with the federal statute of limitations with filing his federal claims, and he had procedurally defaulted his claims in state court by not raising them sooner,” Peifer said.

Holley’s question was whether the sentencing error justified an out-of-time filing, and Peifer tackled whether the client’s innocence of the sentence should excuse the procedural default in state court so the appeal could be heard in front of a judge.

The pair presented their arguments before Judge G. Steven Agee of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Judge Julia Smith Gibbons and Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton, both of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The experience of being questioned by judges who are expert in the areas of law around which the case revolved was very different from previous student-judged rounds, Holley and Peifer said.

“The questions were pretty intense,” Holley said. “We had prepared for most everything. Not quite everything, but near everything.”

Though the competition required a heavy investment of time, the experience also provided ample opportunity to improve oral argument and brief-writing skills, the pair said.

“I think wanting to improve in your persuasive argument and your rhetoric are good goals to have, and there really aren’t many opportunities to develop those skills that are as well-designed as the Lile competition,” Peifer said.  “You don’t get better at something like oral argument without practicing it, and in law school there aren’t a lot of opportunities to do that.”

Holley, who plans to move to Illinois to become a prosecutor after graduation, said he also felt that his skills had improved as a result of the process.

“My writing skills, particularly from working with Lee, who is an amazing writer, have improved dramatically,” he said.

The competition was a friendly one, he said. Holley is good friends with both of the opposing finalists — Allred is a groomsman is his upcoming wedding and the two play racquetball every week.

Peifer, who will clerk for Judge Phyllis A. Kravitch of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after graduation, and hopes to work as a private practice litigator afterward, praised the conduct and quality of his competitors.

“It’s a good competition because people have a kind of professionalism about them,” he said. “I really strongly suspect that not all the competitions are as collegial.”

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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