TAHP Students Shine in Southern California Courts
This summer, Anastasia Sagorsky and Michael Morse got to have their days in court. Sargosky, Chair of Southwestern's Trial Advocacy Honors Program (TAHP), won a competition held for clerks working in the Riverside County District Attorney's Office. Morse, a TAHP board member who externed for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, had the opportunity to serve as First Chair in a misdemeanor domestic violence case at the Compton Courthouse. Both credit Southwestern's TAHP program with preparing them for such successful and productive summer experiences.
"I don't know how Professors Esposito and Seki do it, but they get their students up on their feet and knowing their way around a courtroom in just a matter of weeks," Sagorsky said. "It's really amazing."
She came to law school because she wants to be a prosecutor and got to spend the summer working in felony prelims, and handling misdemeanors and domestic violence cases. Every year, the Riverside courts hold the Closing Argument Competition for all 2L law clerks. During the last week of the externship, 12 student clerks converged at the downtown Riverside courthouse to compete.
"You get the problem on the Thursday night, and the competition starts on Monday," Sagorsky explained. "You have five minutes to deliver the closing argument for the prosecution. This was an arson and burglary case."
Sagorsky delivered her closing argument to a panel of five judges which consisted of attorneys, deputy DAs and supervising DAs. After each round, students were given additional facts and required to incorporate them into increasingly longer closing arguments. By the finals on Friday, Sagorsky and one other contestant remained. They had 12 minutes to speak. Then they were also required to deliver a five minute rebuttal to the defense's closing argument. Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach and Judge L. Jackson Lucky IV '94, a Southwestern alumnus, were among the judges of the final round.
"It was great to win," Sagorsky said. "I could not have done this without the experience that I've had through TAHP, which really made it possible for me to go in there with confidence and talk to the judges."
Michael Morse's externship with the LA County DA's office took him to the Compton Courthouse, where he tried a misdemeanor domestic violence case. He handled voir dire (jury selection), opening statements, all of the direct examinations, cross examinations, sidebars and a 30-minute closing argument. The trial lasted just under two weeks.
"In reality, it was remarkable how similar to TAHP it actually was and how well TAHP prepared me to put on the trial," Morse said. Of course, there were some differences. "In competition, when we're giving an argument to a jury, it's our peers who are evaluating us, but in real life, jurors' body language is totally different. You can tell when they're not paying attention or when something you say gets to them."
Morse's former TAHP coach, Southwestern Alumna Brandi Chase '06, works at the Compton court. Before the case started, the district attorney was concerned, and warned Morse a not guilty verdict was likely. "But Brandi told the DA that I would be able to handle it," Morse said. "The DA was nervous for me until he saw the trial unfold, and he saw I could do this."
His experience gave him a new respect for what prosecutors do. "After the trial, I was able to talk to Judge Halim Dhanidina who presided over the case. He said I did an excellent job, and my supervising DA (and Southwestern alum) Greg Mohrman '08 called my closing outstanding!"
In October, Sagorksy and Morse will each compete on separate teams of four from Southwestern at the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (CACJ) National Criminal Trial Advocacy Competition in San Francisco. In 2011, Southwestern won this competition.