Objection? Overruled!: SLUH has landmark weekend at MOYAG Convention

A group of 33 SLUH students put on their best suits and masks last Thursday and boarded a bus to Jefferson City. The students were part of the St. Louis University High School delegation, representing the school at Missouri YMCA’s 73rd annual Missouri Youth and Government (MOYAG) Convention held at the state capitol. 

The YAG Club outside the Missouri State Capitol. Photo: Sarah Becvar.

After last year’s virtual convention, SLUH was pleased to send their delegation to an in-person conference for the first time since 2019. In Jefferson City, the group enjoyed meeting students from other schools while walking around downtown for lunch, debating bills on the floors of the Senate chamber, arguing a case on the Fourth Amendment, or by just running into them at the Capitol Plaza Hotel, where all the schools’ delegations stayed. 

The SLUH delegation, split accordingly into the legislative and judicial branches of government, and dominated the chamber floors and the courtrooms respectively to bring home a number of personal accommodations when the convention ended on Saturday, Nov. 13.

From the beginning of the school year up until the convention itself, the legislative branch of SLUH’s delegation would meet every week to learn the bill writing process and proper parliamentary procedure to use when on the House floor. Senior Taggart Arens, who was voted one of the two Speakers of the House for this year’s convention, served as the official leader of SLUH’s legislative branch. Being his fourth year as a SLUH legislator, Arens (who earned the appropriate nickname of “Yaggart” over the weekend) took pride and joy in his positions. 

“The program has been such a great experience for me over the years,” said Arens. “It has taught me to use my voice to speak with confidence to really understand the issues that are facing our world and then to interact with my peers and my community to figure out how to deal with those issues.”

Working countless hours writing and debating bills as if in the House of Representatives, the SLUH legislative branch was ready to showcase its bills at the convention and utilize the parliamentary procedure they had learned in the weeks leading up to the convention. SLUH’s bills ranged from the practical—such as junior Ben Croat’s bill to adjust protocols for public school funding—to the unorthodox— such as junior Alex Deiters’ bill to allow the research of the effects of psilocybin mushrooms on humans. 

“It was a huge step up from last year to be able to write a bill and actually present it on the Senate floor rather than in a Zoom conference,” said Deiters. 

When the legislative branch arrived in Jefferson City Thursday afternoon, delegates from each participating school were split up into four committees where they would present their bill to a committee of about 20 other legislators that was led by two committee chairpersons, who would meet later in the night to discuss which bills they deemed debatable enough to make it to the actual House floor the following day. In these committees, the SLUH delegates were able to ask questions and debate bills presented by delegates from other schools. Seniors Francis Alford and Mark Wappler led one such committee, moderating healthy and productive debate of each bill.

“Being able to sit in front of the room and lead the committee after years of being among the delegates was powerful, exhilarating, and a little nerve-wracking,” said Alford. “It really felt like a full circle experience to be in both positions of the legislative branch.”

Senior Taggart Arens on the stand. Photo: Sarah Becvar.

Friday morning, the legislators trekked up to Capitol Hill in their formal attire for another session of debating and voting on bills in the Missouri State Capitol building. The legislative branch had to meet in the Senate Chamber because of renovations being done in the House of Representatives Chamber. There, delegate junior Alex Brinkman formulated written speeches of opposition for several proposed bills, successfully shooting them down before they were voted on. Furthermore, seniors Joey Meehan and Alford led much discussion throughout the afternoon, asking many well developed and even provocative questions towards bill authors. 

“It made me feel official to be sitting in the capitol building interrogating and arguing with bill authors,” said Meehan. “It was a cool experience that I wish I could have done with my friends in previous years.” 

All the while, juniors Connor Whalen and Deiters represented SLUH as Senators in a smaller meeting room in the state capitol building. There, they helped continue debate on bills passed in the House of Representatives, eventually passing several bills that went on to be signed by the MOYAG Governor. 

“I definitely preferred being in the Senate chamber this year,” said Whalen. “I felt like the Senators were engaged in more productive and intelligent debate than in the House and avoided all the stupid stuff.”

As the SLUH legislators were discussing their bills in the Capitol building, the judicial branch, nicknamed SLUHdicial, was also locked in fierce debate. Early in the school year, a few months prior to the convention, the year’s YAG judicial case was released, sending high school delegations across the state into a flurry of law interpretation and studies of case law. 

Moderators selfie! Photo: Stephen Deves.

Each year, students pair off into teams to begin preparing their case arguments using the provided materials—the stipulated facts and attorneys’ briefs of the case at hand, plus a collection of previous cases to use in support of the current one. This year, the case focused on the legality of a drug dog sniff. Judicial Jr. Bills jumped into the work, forming arguments to prove whether or not the dog’s sniff provided probable cause to search a vehicle and home, and if a drug dog sniff constitutes a search under the fourth amendment. 

At last year’s convention, senior Jack Feise was voted into the position of Attorney General for this year, and combined with the formidable Louis Cornett and inimitable Luke Pierson, made a leadership team capable of guiding the SLUH delegation to victory. 

“It was a huge advantage to have myself and Will Broun as two returning judges,” said senior Cornett. “Plus Luke and Jack as returning lawyers allowed us as a delegation to really hone in on the specifics of both sides. Having the two perspectives of judge and attorney really helped us to prepare well.”

With the guiding principles of these senior SLUHdicial veterans, the delegation worked in the true fashion of St. Louis U. High—‚completing case arguments on the bus Thursday morning, just hours before some attorney teams had their first trials.

“When it came down to it, pretty much on the bus, I had my argument written,” said senior Jacob Sander. “We had this moment where the entire bus ride, all of us were sitting comparing our cases, improving and building on each other’s arguments. Overall we all developed really strong arguments based off the bus ride.”

Once in Jefferson City, judicial delegates cracked down on their cases and prepared for their first trials. Each team of two argued in two to three cases, spanning from Thursday afternoon to Friday afternoon.

“I love arguing, so it was a great way to express myself, in that sense,” said sophomore Tim Browdy. “I liked the competitive style of argument against other schools and I wasn’t expecting that, but it was super rewarding.”

The seniors who acted as judges in the trials, though their tasks were different, were immersed in the YAG adventure as much as the attorneys were. These upperclassmen are in charge of presiding over the trials, providing feedback and guidance for the attorneys, and ultimately evaluating them on their performance.

“I think that was like the best experience I've had yet so far, because I actually got to mentor the younger attorneys,” said senior Evan Yalavarthi. “I got to be a leader in the SLUH delegation and also ended up going on to the finals and winning an outstanding judge award. So that was a great experience.”

In some cases, the actual trials which the delegates had spent so many hours preparing for were not the highlight of many Jr. Bills’ trips.

“The food,” said sophomore Ethan Herweck when asked his favorite part of the trip.

Physically being in Jefferson City, surrounded by like-minded high school students from across the state, built a unique and amazing community experience. In addition to the immersive nature of lawmaking and politics, the trip was very much a social experience. 

“I loved getting into meeting new people and getting closer to some SLUH kids,” said junior Owen Fitzgerald. “It was a great experience working with new people I’ve never met before.”

“That's really what I felt made it so special this year,” said Feise. “It’s just those in-person connections. Just walking into people's courtrooms and sitting in the back and talking to people, hanging out with the judges in person.”

After the trials concluded, the judges convened to discuss quite possibly the biggest decision of their lives: the semifinalists of the YAG 2021 judicial convention. Taking on the daunting task, the judges nominated attorneys based on their presentational skills, knowledge of the case and case law, persuasiveness of the argument, and ability to answer questions asked by the judges.

In the end, a whopping three of the eight semifinalists were Jr. Bills—sophomore Grayson Stevenson, junior Owen Fitzgerald, and senior Sander. With the teams scrambled, and new partners from Visitation Academy and Cor Jesu Academy, the semifinalists spent their Friday night diving deep into case law yet again.

“My favorite part was the semifinals, that hour and a half of preparation time,” said Stevenson. “We were all in there, the judges were all having a good time. They were all super nice and were able to help us and it was really nice to work with my partner.”

The work paid off in the end, because both Stevenson’s and Sander’s teams advanced to the finals, giving SLUH a guaranteed championship, the first for the delegation. After battling it out in the courtroom, pulling out all the details from case law, and even continuing the presentation through an interruption of music over the speakers, the judges made their ruling.

Sander came out on top with his partner from Visitation Academy.

“As a senior Jacob really took it upon himself to be a leader for everyone else, including the underclassmen,” said Cornett. “It really showed off in his case, he was confident, he knew it very well. That’s the reason he got to the semifinals. And once again, he was just a great role model for what we want every attorney to be—confident, polite, asking questions. That’s what got him in the finals and that’s what allowed him to win it.”

At the end of the convention, SLUH was unarguably the most successful delegation. At the closing ceremony, SLUH delegates in both judicial and legislative branches got a series of rewards. In the legislative branch, Whalen and Wappler both won two of the three “Outstanding Bill” rewards, which were selected from a collection of more than 100 bills. In addition to the judicial semifinalists, finalists, and champion, a variety of honors were awarded to Jr. Bills. Freshmen Michael Fallert and Marshall Prost and senior Nick Fischer won “Outstanding New Attorney,” seniors Henry Dowd and Billy Wappler won “Outstanding Attorney Team,” and seniors Luke Pierson and Evan Yalavarthi won “Outstanding Judge.”

“The preparation and execution of this convention was entirely student-led,” said YAG moderator Sarah Becvar. “They put so much work into it, and it really paid off. They couldn’t have done any better.”

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