For the first time since 2019, the winners of the annual Rutan & Tucker Golden Gavel Competition made their final arguments before a triumvirate of guest judges live and in-person, before a standing room-only audience packed into the Fowler School of Law’s Appellate Courtroom.

The Golden Gavel Competition is the culmination of a semester’s worth of work for the Fowler School of Law’s first-year law students, all of whom deliver oral arguments based on two issues of federal law they research and write about as part of their Legal Analysis, Writing, and Research course. After several rounds of competition last week, eight students progressed to the semifinal round: Defendant advocates Brandon Cross, Hannah De La Riva, Valeria Salceda, and Jodee Storm Sullivan, and government advocates Yea Lee, Maret Schwab, Jeanette Simanek, and Kaelyn Timmins.

Ultimately, Sullivan and Timmins were selected for the Golden Gavel award, and the two students faced off Monday afternoon in the final exhibition round, presided over by Judge John Owens of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Judge Nathan Vu of the Superior Court of California, Orange County, and Lisa Neal, a partner at sponsoring firm Rutan & Tucker.

After Sullivan and Timmins confidently delivered their arguments and rebuttals before the court, the judges provided post-deliberation feedback to the student competitors. Judge Owens kicked things off by admitting that, because of the quality of their arguments, he had to double check that this competition was, indeed, a 1L event. “I was a little surprised,” he said.

“This would be one I would go back into chambers and tell the law clerks, ‘they were really good.’ That doesn’t happen all the time,” said Owens. “Both of you both had a great command of the record. You answered questions that we asked. And you were straight with us. That is really good, because the most valuable thing you have as a lawyer is your reputation.”

Lawyers, judges, students in courtroom

Lisa Neal, partner at Rutan & Tucker, government advocate Kaelyn Timmins, Judge John Owens of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, defendant advocate Jodee Storm Sullivan, Judge Nathan Vu of the Superior Court of California, Orange County, and Fowler School of Law Interim Dean Marisa Cianciarulo.

Judge Vu, who is also a former Fowler School of Law professor, revealed that this was the sixth hearing he already had that day. “I’ve heard five other arguments this morning, and this was by far the best,” he said.

“You were willing to admit when the record wasn’t so great for you,” said Vu. “That’s something I don’t often see from actual practicing lawyers. You both did a terrific job.”

Neal, a trial lawyer whose practice focuses on litigation, said that she relished the opportunity to refamiliarize herself with the Constitutional issues addressed by the students’ arguments. She was also suitably impressed by the finalists. “You’ve all done an extraordinary job today taking on these issues, addressing the facts, and responding to questions by the court,” Neal said. “It’s not easy.”

Sullivan and Timmins will each receive a $500 scholarship as part of Rutan & Tucker’s sponsorship of the competition. The Orange County-based firm counts a number of Fowler Law alumni among its roster of legal professionals, including partners Jennifer Farrell, Brandon Sylvia, and Kenneth Zielinski.