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Vol. 31, No. 2

Least Understood Branch: ABA project aims to inform public about the judicial system

by Clifton Barnes

A recent Zogby International poll not only found that Americans knew the names of the Three Stooges and not of the three branches of government, it also found that most people could name two of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, but only 25 percent could name two U.S. Supreme Court justices.

That poll pretty well sums up the battle on the hands of the ABA’s Least Understood Branch initiative, which aims to educate the public and opinion leaders about the judicial branch and its role and, in turn, to improve the public’s trust and confidence in our courts.

“This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” says William K. Weisenberg, a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Judicial Independence, which partners with the ABA Judicial Division on the project. “This is a very important project, and one that needs effective training and effective messages.”

The communications specialist who designed the questions for the Zogby poll says there are important lessons about communicating to be learned from the poll results.

“These results are not about how ‘dumb’ Americans are, but how much more effectively popular culture information is communicated and retained by citizens than many of the messages that come from government, educational institutions, and the media,” says Syracuse professor Robert Thompson. For example, the poll showed that Justice Clarence Thomas, who became a cultural celebrity during his controversial confirmation hearings, was the most recognized justice.

The Least Understood Branch project used results of a nonpartisan Justice at Stake study to compile a new “tool kit” of resource materials, which was officially unveiled to two standing-room crowds during the ABA Annual Meeting in August. The kit includes an informational DVD, message platforms, sample op-ed columns, and other resources to prepare people to speak and respond to questions.

The tool kit is now being distributed to bar executives and bar leaders throughout the country, and is available at Jane Taylor, immediate past president of the Ohio State Bar Association, says that it’s important for everyone to have a role in this project and that the OSBA, for one, will take an active leadership role.

“The [Least Understood Branch] effort is directed at civic education, a return to basics, in order that our citizenry—from students to civic and community organizations—understand what is meant by the separation of powers and the role of the judiciary in a free and democratic society,” Taylor says.

Countering critics

Edward W. (Ned) Madeira Jr., chair of the Least Understood Branch Implementation Committee, says the comments from bar leaders have been “extremely encouraging” and that lawyers and judges are open to learning “how to deal with hostile questions and how to stay on point.”

One component of the tool kit is a pamphlet called “Countering the Critics,” which deals with general preparation and responding to real questions speakers are likely to hear. Perhaps the most important portion deals with “bridging,” which involves taking a comment or question and broadening the point to address the speaker’s core message.

Weisenberg says that, when speaking, it’s OK to acknowledge that the judicial system is not perfect and that there are legitimate criticisms on some issues, but it’s important to look at the big picture and stay on message. It helps that studies show that the public wants and expects courts to protect their rights. The Justice at Stake study found that 94 percent either strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement, “We need strong courts that are free from political influence.”

That’s a major aspect of the materials being supplied to bar executives and bar leaders. The implementation committee intends to keep the project active by having its members make appearances and speeches at local and state bar events to help train the messengers. In addition, Madeira says, the project needs to partner with other groups that share the same values—those that want to preserve the integrity and legitimacy of the courts.

As many bar leaders have realized, those involved with the Least Understood Branch initiative know that it’s important to reach young people as well as adults. Weisenberg says that in addition to proactively getting into the schools to educate students through speeches and presentations, he’d also like to eventually see the information incorporated into school curricula. “We’ve got to recognize the importance of civics and get back to the basics of civic education,” he says.

The messages within the project will also be taken directly to the media through meetings with editorial boards and other similar audiences. Madeira says it’s important to remember that the justice system successfully resolves some 100 million cases a year and that “very few involve these tremendous social issues that divide the nation or involve constitutional opinions where there is a big split.”

A long-term commitment

Both Weisenberg and Madeira acknowledge that other worthy projects over the years have been short-term or forgotten, but say there appears to be great interest and more optimism about this project. Plus, they say, those working on this project are not only committed to a long-term educational effort, but are in the process of institutionalizing the effort across the country.

Rather than delivering the message directly to the public, the effort is now focused on getting the materials out to bar leaders, bar executives, and judges, getting them committed to the project, and then training them in delivering the message.

The ABA can plant the seed, Weisenberg says, but it will take the efforts of local and state bars, judges, and judicial conferences for the Least Understood Branch project to grow. “All politics are local,” he notes. “We need many messengers. Over time, it will take hold.”

By the way, in that Zogby poll, twice as many people were able to identify the most recent “American Idol” winner, Taylor Hicks, as were able to name the most recent Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Alito. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

—By Clifton Barnes