<< The Body Politic

Lawyers and civic education

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Writing in The Atlantic, Randall T. Shepard, a former Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, argues that the legal profession has an important role to play in strengthening the civic education and engagement of the general public. He writes:

Multiple forces in modern life work to detract from Americans’ ability to understand, navigate, and re-shape the country’s civil institutions. These forces include, to name a few names: declining emphasis on social studies in our schools, the shrinking capabilities of news organizations, and the prominence given to the brashest of headlines. A post-industrial society flooded with more “information,” complexity, and interdependence than ever before,” and fewer genuine aids for making sense of it all, make for a deadly combination.

Judges and lawyers have traditionally not viewed themselves as having a central role in public education about law and government. We thought that other elements of society had ownership of that task. But the diminished capacity of some of these elements (especially the incredible shrinking press), suggest that the profession must be more assertive on this front.

After advocating for the use of cameras in the courtroom and encouraging judges to do a better job with making their opinions accessible to the public (“When I write opinions about matters of high visibility, I work pretty hard on the opening hundred words”), Shepard turns to the foundation of the public’s understanding of civic institutions: childhood education. “Here, too,” he notes, “the legal profession has greater capacity than it uses.”

The Indiana Supreme Court has a staff which works to help teachers and students understand the legal system. They use a variety of techniques: lesson plans on how to teach famous cases that illustrate important legal concepts; an electronic legal history museum; education events in courtrooms and public schools, including interactive plays written around landmark decisions; a publication series in both digital and hard copy to make for easy access by student researchers; webcasts and archives built around all of these efforts and more; and personal appearances by lawyers and judges. When the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth rolled around, for example, hundreds of volunteers went to speak to tens of thousands of students about “Why It Mattered that Lincoln Was a Lawyer.” It was a springboard for conversations about the rule of law.

A national effort in this vein is led by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Under the banner of “iCivics,” civic leaders and people from the legal profession are creating free and innovative educational materials aimed at helping young Americans become knowledgeable, engaged citizens. Online electronic games like “Branches of Power” and “Do I Have a Right?” draw lots of clicks in middle schools. The National Center for State Courts has likewise launched graphics-based novels, serious comic books, if you will, about the legal system.

What do people know about lawyers and the rule of law? Do they have confidence in what courts do for society?

The vitality of the American experiment in government, and the nation’s adherence to the rule of law as the chief mechanism for shaping its civic future, inevitably depend on how firmly the country’s citizens grasp its institutions and engage in reforming them. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,” said Thomas Jefferson. I’ve seen first-hand the difference in public engagement that energetic outreach by the legal profession can produce.

Read the whole thing here.