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Advocacy Excellence

February 22, 2023

Nikita Ganesh L’24 won first prize at the New York State Bar Association’s Moot Court Oral Argument.

On January 18, Nikita Ganesh L’24 took home the top prize at the Moot Court Oral Argument at the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA)’s annual meeting, where she successfully argued Fitisemanu v. United States.

“A lot of people do come into law school having done public speaking or debate, and that’s awesome — but if you’ve never done those things before, that doesn’t mean that those avenues are closed off to you or that those are not things you could be good at,” Ganesh said. “If there’s something you’re interested in and something you think you could be good at, you just have to try it out.”

Cultivating Legal Practice Skills

Ganesh first began to think about law school during an internship with an immigration defense firm in Arizona. Even though she wasn’t a law student yet, she found that she was highly interested in working on law-oriented tasks.

Nikita Ganesh L'24 Nikita Ganesh L’24“I really enjoyed the little things, like being able to put someone’s story onto paper. That was a big turning point for me. I thought, if I enjoy the parts of a case separate from the traditionally exciting courtroom aspects, then this could be the right track,” Ganesh said. “It’s definitely been confirmed since being in Law School. I know I want to do litigation… . I really enjoy advocating for someone.”

At the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, Ganesh is involved in a wide variety of organizations and leadership roles: she is Vice President of the South Asian Law Students Association, an Associate Editor for the Journal of Constitutional Law, and a competitor in the Keedy Cup. Outside of Penn, she is involved with The Appellate Project, which is a non-profit that supports law students of color in building litigation skills.

Ganesh firmly believes in the power of pursuing opportunities to see where they lead — so, when she heard that her colleague needed a partner for the NYSBA Moot Court Oral Argument a few days before the preliminary round began, she was eager to say yes.

Courtroom Strategy

During the competition, participants argued Fitisemanu v. United States, a case for which the Supreme Court recently denied a petition for certiorari. In the case, a group of American Samoans living in Utah argued that the U.S. was denying them their constitutional rights by not granting them birthright citizenship. The U.S. District Court for the District of Utah ruled for the plaintiffs; however, when the U.S. appealed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed the decision.

In both the preliminaries and the finals, Ganesh argued for the American Samoa government, which intervened to argue that this decision should not be made in a U.S. court without American Samoa’s input.

Ganesh, who had taken “Appellate Advocacy” at Penn Carey Law, said that this argument was the most challenging oral argument she had ever done. The judges began asking questions just over a minute into the argument, and many of them were very complex and difficult to answer.

“The judges were asking us very specific questions,” Ganesh said. “What I learned in that was when to say, ‘Your Honor, I’m not familiar with that case. Can you explain it?’ and then I was able to answer the question.”

In their feedback, the judges noted that Ganesh’s ability to ask the judge for clarification and then quickly glean the information she needed to continue her argument was an essential litigation skill.

Oral arguments for the final round were held at the NYSBA’s annual Constance Baker Motley Symposium. This time, Ganesh was expecting questions and was surprised when they didn’t begin until about five minutes into her argument, forcing her to readjust her strategy in the moment and think on her feet.

At the conclusion of the arguments, the judges announced that Ganesh and her partner won the competition.

Looking Ahead

For Ganesh, winning the competition was great, but the real takeaways came from viewing the experience more broadly. In addition to continuing to hone her oral advocacy skills, Ganesh is also eager to expand her knowledge of the substantive areas of the law she learned about in the Fitisemanu case and is currently collaborating with one of the attorney mentors she met at the competition to research birthright citizenship and American Samoa.

Moving forward, Ganesh plans to continue to expand her knowledge and strengthen her skills. She encourages others to do the same and to be patient with themselves throughout the learning process.

“The first oral argument I did, I talked a mile a minute…but there are certain tactics you learn to use,” Ganesh said. “The biggest thing is that I’m no longer apprehensive about pursuing opportunities like this, because I know they could lead to amazing future experiences.”

Explore advocacy competition opportunities at Penn Carey Law.