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The first time you learned about argumentation in debate, you were likely forced to sit through a lecture on logical fallacies. In addition to ad hominem and non sequitur, you probably learned about appeals to authority.

Appeals to authority are just what they sound like—arguments that do not provide a reason or warrant for their veracity but merely appeal to someone else’s say-so.

Examples include:

  • “Einstein said that time is relative, so the theory of relativity must be true.”
  • “My doctor recommended this diet, so it must be the best one for me.”
  • “The CEO of the company endorses this product, so it must be high-quality.”

These are called fallacies for a reason: Just because someone else said that something was true does not mean it actually is true. Thus, in debate, we are all taught to do our best to shy away from these arguments whenever we can.

Interestingly, however, in moot court, the opposite is true. Moot court argumentation is built on appeals to authority; good arguments consist of connecting the facts of the instant case to previous Supreme Court precedent, which is cited as the final authority on almost all questions of law.

If the Supreme Court has said something in the past, that precedent is nearly absolutely binding and cannot be contradicted. This is because of a doctrine known as stare decisis (Latin for “the decision stands” or “let the decision stand”).

Thus, the type of argumentation in moot court is quite different from that in debate. Instead of building your own warrants and impacts as you would in debate, in moot court you must use the same types of warrants and impacts that everyone else does: the best warrant is previous Supreme Court precedent and the best impact is simply that the judge should follow said precedent.

Though this is the general rule of argumentation in moot court, there are a few exceptions.

Exception #1: The Supreme Court Has Not Ruled on a Given Issue

In these cases, you get to make your own argument before the court. Why is your reading of the Constitution the best? Does it most closely mirror the founders’ intent? Is it the best policy for the nation to adopt? Even though you can be largely original in these instances, you should still give the judge some precedential basis for your argumentation.

Exception #2: The Supreme Court Has Ruled on an Issue, But You Are Asking for a Different Ruling

Be very careful in these instances. They involve cases where the previous Supreme Court decision was blatantly wrong, or where the rationale for the decision no longer applies, or where society has developed so much that the previous decision has become antiquated.

Please note, however, that your judges will not be inclined to agree with this sort of argumentation. If you depart from previous precedent, there will be a strong presumption against whatever argument you are making—no matter how persuasive it is.

Apart from these exceptions, appeals to authority are the general rule in moot court. My advice to you is simply this: embrace it. Originality and creativity certainly have their place in moot court, but your originality and creativity are restricted to certain kinds of claims (i.e., claims about previous precedent and its application to the instant case).

So, as you are reading through your case packet and the supplemental SCOTUS cases that have been provided alongside it, constantly look for connections between the two (i.e., facts and circumstances that are similar and different)—for those are the best form of argumentation you can present in-round.

Patrick McDonald competed in the NCFCA for five years. He is currently attending Hillsdale College in Michigan, The United States of America, where he is pursuing a double major in Politics and History. If you would like to book coaching with Patrick, click here.

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