Is a 10-year-old in control of his own destiny?
Not if hes refusing to submit to a medical procedure that just might save his older brothers life.
That was at the heart of a mock case Steven Conifer successfully argued before the real justices of the states Supreme Court Tuesday afternoon (March 13) at West Virginia Universitys College of Law.
His courtroom prowess earned him WVU s prize Baker Cup, the coveted centerpiece of the annual Moot Court George C. Baker competition.
The second-year law student from Hurricane went up against the court and fellow student Jenifer Matko, of Bridgeport.
It was a fictitious case, but it as easily could have come from the pages of The New England Journal of Medicine or your local newspaper.
The case showed a medical nightmare in the lives of theJohnsonfamily. In the scenario, Jeremy and Nancy Johnson watch helplessly as their son, Chad, 14, falls prey to an incurable liver disease: Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency. The disease could kill him in a year, and a liver transplant would be ideal.
Even a partial transplantwhich put the entire family in court.
Chad would live if a suitable donor could be found willing to undergo surgery for the removal of a portion of his liver. Tissue from the healthy organ could be grafted onto Chads liver, which would promote regeneration.
That donor was found in the form of his 10-year-old brother, Rudi, who didnt want to undergo the procedure because he was afraid.
The hospital where Chad was a patient wont do the procedure unless Jeremy and Nancy can obtain a declaratory judgmenta court decision decreeing that the young man go under the knife whether he wants to or not, since his brothers life is at stake.
A local superior court sided with Rudi, saying that his parents were too distraught and distracted to consider the emotional ramifications of it all.
That ruling was also marked by dueling testimony of two psychiatrists: one said forcing Rudi into surgery would cause him to harbor anger and resentment. Another said hed be overwhelmed with guilt and grief, if he didnt do it and his brother died.
The real-life justices Tuesday went with Conifer.
I had to really anchor myself with case law and all this preparation,he said.Last night, I sat down and kept typing out the questions I thought theyd ask. In the end, it was a �€~greater goodthing. The little brother was scared, but if he didnt undergo the procedure, his brother would die.
It was a wrenching case all the way around, said Matko, the runner-up.
It was a tough argument on both sides,she said.I kept thinking about the little boy, and the precedent it might set. I still think Steven had the tougher case, though.”
With the Baker Cup out of the way, both said theyre looking forward to making cases for their careers after graduation.
Conifer worked as a field organizer for the Kerry-Edwards 2004 campaign and served as a Public Interest Advocates Fellow last summer at Legal Aid in Charleston. Hell work this summer as Sprouse Fellow in the Charleston Public Defenders Office.
Hes the current vice president of the College of Laws Public Interest Advocates Group and was awarded the first-ever West Virginia State Bar Public Interest Scholarship.
Conifer is a 2003 cum laude philosophy graduate of Marshall University. Hes the son of Paul and Dorothy Conifer, both originally from Liverpool, England.
Matko wants to become a criminal defense lawyer when she graduates. She spends her summers working at WVU Student Legal Services.
The daughter of Daniel Matko and Denise Jenkins, she graduated cum laude from WVU in 2005 with a bachelors degree in political science and a minor in communication studies.
Both looked at each other and laughed Tuesday when it was all over. While they were both grateful for the opportunity, they said they were both glad it was just thatover.
It was the �€~walking inpart that got me,Conifer said.When the justices came in the courtroom, I saw those black robes, and my throat turned into a desert.