Admiralty Law Team Tests Waters in Virtual Competition

The Ocean Drew Them Toward the Law of the Seas

For one Suffolk Law student who grew up on the waters of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands and another who became a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer deployed to the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Pacific, the ocean has always loomed large.

Admiralty Moot Court Team members Clarissa Brady, John Bromley, Nathan Harding
Clarissa Brady, JD '20; John Bromley, JD '06 (coach); Nathan Harding, Class of 2021  

No surprise then that once at Suffolk, Clarissa Brady, Class of 2020, and Nathan Harding, Class of 2021, sought out the school’s Maritime and Admiralty Law expert John Bromley, JD ’06, himself a Navy veteran. They both took Bromley’s course and joined the national admiralty moot court competition team he coaches.

At a time when most moot court competitions were canceled because of COVID-19, the Judge John R. Brown Admiralty Moot Court Competition sped ahead into uncharted waters. The entire event, right through the award ceremony, was held on Zoom—an experience that offered the students a lesson in lawyering for the video trial era.

Brady and Harding were named “Best Newcomers” at the competition, virtually hosted by the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. It was Suffolk’s first time participating.

“They did a great job preparing so they would be ready for an all-video environment,” Bromley says. “Nate and Clarissa successfully morphed what would normally be an open courtroom experience, with full body language available for interpretation, to a laptop screen crowded with mugshots of judges, the other competitors, the competition director, bailiff, and coaches.”

Bromley isn’t sure, but he suspects that the Admiralty Moot Court was one of the first all-video competitions.

The experience offered some practical lessons. One of which is to have a plain, neutral background behind you as you are arguing, Harding says. One competitor had some awards and books behind him, and Harding found himself wondering what the words were on the book spines and the award plaques. “It took away from the argument and was a potential distraction for the judges.”

Brady argues that the social etiquette in a video competition is slightly different than in person. “Politeness requires you to look at your competitors more than you would typically. Keeping track of the judges on screen can also be unnerving. There were a few moments where technical glitches made me think that a judge was interrupting to ask a question when they weren’t.”

Harding says the biggest challenge he faced during the competition was fielding rapid-fire questions from judges. “It’s not like a closing argument on Law & Order,” he says. “There are interruptions and you need to be able to have a conversation with the judges—tactfully lead them towards what’s in the best interests of your client.” Training with Bromley and Brady two or three times a week helped him successfully climb a steep learning curve; it was his first moot court competition.

Why study admiralty law?

Harding and Brady say the field is one that deserves more attention given the outsized role it plays in the world’s economy.

Before he joined the Navy, Harding says, he didn’t understand that 80 percent of the world’s commerce travels by sea. “Our economy is literally dependent on it,” he says. “The computer you are typing on, the clothes you’re wearing, the food you eat, the car you're driving, unless it was 100 percent produced in the U.S., it likely arrived here by sea. And if the product was made here, there’s a good chance that many of the components came by ship.”

One critical area of maritime law, says Harding, is “sea lines of communication.”

“Those vital shipping routes all over the world converge on choke-points that are often exploited by pirates and bad-state or non-state actors, like the harassment of vessels by Iran in the Straights of Hurmuz or the Houthi Militia’s threat to mine the Bab-al-Mendeb Strait,” he says.

“I grew up on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” Brady adds. “The entire island, three miles long by a half a mile wide, is a U.S. military base. As you can imagine boating and the ocean were important to my family. The Marshall Islands are a hub for international shipping and promoting sustainability in the maritime industry, so I understood the importance of that part of the economy.”

The case the students argued at the competition centered on how a federal statute interprets international law in a multi-country shipping dispute over liability for damaged goods and whether that issue should be heard at a state or federal court. It’s the type of case that’s dividing circuit courts around the country and may well end up being decided by the Supreme Court, Harding says.
Harding now works in the Social Security Administration in the Office of General Counsel as a paralegal specialist project managing Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income litigation.

Brady interned at the U.S. Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the First Circuit in Boston. This fall she will be working at Cades Schutte, a law firm in Honolulu.

Bromley served as a petty officer third class in the U.S. Navy from 1987 to 1991 during the first Gulf War. Some of the areas covered in Bromley’s course include vessel arrest procedures, asset forfeiture, salvage and finds, maritime personal injury, and marine pollution.