Jansen VanderMeulen ‘19
The UVA Law team romped to victory once again in this year’s International and European Tax Moot Court in Brussels, Belgium, defeating sixteen other teams—and heavyweight Vienna University of Economics and Business in the final round—to follow up on its surprise triumph last year. Team participants were Ben Kramer ’19, Elizabeth Donald ’19, Colin Cox ’19, and Griffin Peeples ’18. David Rubin ’19, one of last year’s victorious competitors, served as the team’s coach, while Professor Ruth Mason was its faculty advisor.
Last year, Rubin and a group of dearly departed 3Ls under Mason’s supervision became the first American team to win the fifteen-year-old tax competition, defeating Ukraine’s National University of Kyiv-Mohyla. This year’s competition began in October of 2018. Each participating team received the text of an international tax problem with instructions to submit two briefs over winter break, one for each the applicant taxpayer and the defendant tax authority. Out of twenty-four teams submitting briefs, including teams from Northwestern University and the University of Miami, UVA was among the sixteen schools—and the only one from the U.S.—selected on the basis of the briefs to argue in Brussels. The Vienna team won the competition in 2015, 2016, and 2017, and was, according to Professor Mason, considered “the team to beat.”
The problem was concerned with the interpretation of an international tax treaty, specifically provisions of the UN and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, a grouping of industrialized nations) model tax treaties involving fees for technical services and an anti-abuse rule—provisions that the U.S. never includes in its own treaties, Professor Mason told the paper. “That meant that the team members had no familiarity with those articles from the doctrinal tax treaties course they took with me,” she added.
“[W]e split up the issues amongst ourselves so we could each become knowledgeable on specific subject areas,” Donald told the Law Weekly. Each participant researched particular areas of law and helped draft the brief. “I focused on the taxation of royalties, tax treaty interpretation, and a concept concerning beneficial ownership, which seeks to prevent treaty abuse,” Donald said. She and Cox prepared the case from the perspective of the defendant, while Kramer and Peeples wrote for the “applicant,” or taxpayer.
Arriving in Belgium, the UVA team was pitted against the host school, the Catholic University of Leuven, and the University of Düsseldorf in the round of sixteen, and then universities from Luxembourg and Brazil in the six-team semifinals. Kramer, Donald, Peeples, and Cox all argued in both of the preliminary rounds.
While the first two rounds were argued on the brief that the competitors had been working on for months, the final round was based on an entirely new, forty-five-page brief, one the participants had just twenty-four hours to write. Cox and Peeples argued the final round for the taxpayer. Cox said he was initially “extremely nervous” arguing as the applicant because he had always been in the position of the defendant up to that point, but he and Peeples excelled in the final: “Griffin and Colin killed it in the oral arguments,” Donald said, “They spoke eloquently and were able to cite directly to obscure provisions in the treaty commentary when confronted with difficult questions.” The final round of the competition was argued in front of Judge Peter Cools of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, Judge Guy Brannan of the UK Upper Tribunal (Tax and Chancery Chamber), and Professor Gerard Meussen of Radboud University in the Netherlands. Peeples won the competition’s overall best oralist on the applicant side, and Peeples and Kramer won best team oralists for the applicant.
Mason was very proud of all the student competitors. “What impressed me most about this team was their dedication and preparation from the beginning of fall all the way through the final round of competition,” she said, “I would receive a modest text from the team saying that they thought they had done well in a round. Soon thereafter, I would receive an email from a professor in Europe who had had a chance to watch the round telling me in glowing terms how impressive my students were, how well prepared, and how powerful their arguments had been.” In news sure to please Professors Buck, Ware, and Fore, Professor Mason commented glowingly about the students’ writing skills: “Their legal writing professors will be glad to know that by the time they turned in their final draft briefs, they had expunged all use of the passive voice!”
The trip wasn’t all business; while making the finals meant the UVA team had less opportunity to socialize than they would have otherwise, several competitors told us of the fun they had in Brussels. Peeples, a famed C’ville dancer, called the Europeans “super fun”—high praise indeed from the Whirling Arkansan.
Rubin, the wistful and grizzled veteran, reflected on his Brussels glory days with typical tact and grace: “I think former NBA coach Pat Riley said it better than I ever could: ‘Coaches who let a championship team back off from becoming a dynasty are cowards.’” Coach Rubin, clearly no coward. Donald waxed poetic about the competition, calling it her “favorite experience in all of law school” and expressing her gratitude to Professor Mason for helping advance the students’ careers.
Now, the task is to keep the UVA dynasty alive. Peeples takes the helm as coach for next year’s team, eager to protect UVA’s crown. If his team leadership is anything like his dance-floor presence, next year’s coaching will be vigorous, surprising, and will likely end up with him on top of the presenters’ table in Brussels.