West Virginia Record

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

WVU Moot Court competition full of drama

By Steve Korris | Mar 23, 2007

Baker Cup finalist Steven Conifer hoists his trophy after being declared the winner.

Baker Cup runner-up Jenifer Matko takes a moment to collect her thoughts.

MORGANTOWN – Two people never worked as hard for $850 as Steven Conifer and Jenifer Matko.

Conifer and Matko, second-year students in West Virginia University's College of Law, amazed classmates in oral arguments before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals March 13.

They argued as clearly and forcefully as real attorneys who argued before the Justices earlier in the day at the law school.

The case was fictitious, but the rewards were real. When the Justices ruled in Conifer's favor he won a $500 prize and a big trophy, the Baker Cup. Matko won $350.

Students on the law school's Moot Court Board, who run the annual Baker Cup competition, invented a delicate case for Conifer and Matko.

In the case, 14-year-old Chad Johnson needed a liver transplant. Doctors identified 10-year-old brother Rudi as the best donor of liver tissue.

Rudi resisted, so his parents sought a court order for a transplant from Rudi to Chad. A district court ruled in Rudi's favor.

On appeal, Conifer represented the parents and Matko represented Rudi.

At oral argument, Conifer asked the Justices to reverse the lower court. He called the decision legally and ethically inaccurate.

He said Rudi could not appreciate the situation. He said, "It is difficult if not impossible to imagine a case with higher stakes."

He said Chad would die in months.

He said the risk of rejection was five percent with Rudi and 15 percent with his parents.

Justice Brent Benjamin interrupted and asked him to define exploitation.

Conifer answered as if quoting a dictionary: "Unfair taking advantage of a person or property."

He added, "I would avoid the term exploitation, your honor."

He said Rudi would be subjected to a short period of mild suffering.

Benjamin asked if the parents had a conflict of interest.

Conifer said, "Yes, but we are dealing with a minor and minors inherently are incapable of understanding."

He said Justices should include psychology in defining Rudi's best interest.

Benjamin asked if a court could tell a pregnant 15 year old she could not have an abortion.

Conifer said it was not the same because if a court did not issue an order she would have a child. He said, "Here there is more at stake."

Benjamin asked about Rudi's pain. Conifer said doctors would use anesthesia. He said, "The pain would be quite fleeting."

Conifer said minors cannot withhold consent to medical procedures.

He said Rudi loved his brother and would experience regret if his brother died without a transplant.

Benjamin asked if Rudi said he would do it if he was the only donor. Conifer said yes.

Benjamin said, "Maybe he has some level of maturity that we should consider."

Conifer said, "Rudi is fairly confused about what is going on." He said Rudi did not know the risk of rejection was higher for his parents.

Benjamin asked what Chad said. Conifer said, "He doesn't want to see his brother forced to suffer."

He asked Justices to remand the case to district court for expedited proceedings or to rule in favor of the parents on either the doctrine of substituted judgment or on grounds of fairness and reasonableness.

Matko asked Justices to uphold the district court. She said Rudi would lose a large portion of his liver. She said the case was difficult for all.

She said, "Rudi Johnson is scared."

Justice Spike Maynard said, "Why should we listen to what a 10-year-old says?"

Matko said Rudi had a right to privacy. She said for 25 years the U.S. Supreme Court has protected privacy rights of children.

She said, "Rudi Johnson has a constitutional right to privacy, to determine what happens to his body."

She said the law recognized no duty to aid a person in peril.

Maynard asked if Rudi might suffer psychological trauma. Matko said, "That is highly speculative."

She said the record showed he already suffered negative effects. She said Chad's deposition showed resentment against Rudi.

She said there was no need to reverse or remand. She said, "Decide it today."

Benjamin said an analysis of best interests raised alternatives with issues of fact that could go back to district court.

Matko said experts agreed that Rudi understands what was being asked of him. She said, "There are risks associated with this for Rudi Johnson."

She said risks included bleeding, clotting and death.

She said, "The probability of success is high but there is no guarantee of success."

She said Chad might be back in a year for another liver.

Chief Justice Robin Davis asked if a majority of rulings supported Rudi.

Matko said all rulings referred to best interest.

She rattled off six rules that the Maryland Supreme Court adopted for forcing surgery on a child.

She said a doctor would need 60 percent of Rudi's liver. She said, "He feels cornered and he doesn't want to go through with it."

She said the brothers were torn. She said, "One is sick and one is scared."

On rebuttal, Conifer said that if Rudi donated tissue he might feel intangible benefits and altruistic feelings.

Justice Joseph Albright said, "Do you really think we should speculate on that?"

Conifer said, "That's up to the trial court. It's not idle speculation."

He said, "Experience suggests ten year olds don't always know what is best for them."

He said psychological benefits mean as much as material benefits or more.

Maynard asked about privacy. He recalled a case where a court would not order a bullet removed though it mattered as evidence in a shooting.

Conifer said, "Children do not have the same constitutional rights as adults."

Albright said that took away the essence of a person.

Conifer said, "If you authorize this, the boys will be happy and the parents will be happy."

Davis closed the argument. Law students clapped and cheered. Conifer and Matko hugged.

Justices retired for deliberation and soon returned. Davis said, "This competition gets closer and closer every year."

She declared Conifer the winner.

Conifer, son of Paul and Dorothy Conifer, is from Hurricane. He graduated from Marshall University in 2003 with a degree in philosophy.

He plans to work this summer for the public defender in Charleston.

Matko, daughter of Daniel Matko and Denise Jenkins, is from Bridgeport. She graduated from West Virginia University in 2005, with a degree in political science.

She plans to work this summer for the university's Student Legal Services.

Conifer and Matko will compete for national moot court honors with classmates Craig Beeson, Clint Carte, Erin Jones and Albert Veverka.

Last year's team captured the national prize.

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