High school students from around the nation joined with American Bar Association leaders in a discussion on the separation of powers at a Law Day program in Washington, D.C.
The gathering, which took place May 1 at the Naval Heritage Center auditorium at the United States Navy Memorial, was organized by the ABA Division for Public Education and the Close Up Foundation, a nonprofit organization that educates young people to become informed and engaged citizens.
National Law Day Chair, Jackie Becerra kicked off the 60th anniversary of Law Day by explaining its history to the students. “What is Law Day you might be thinking? Law Day is held on May 1st every year to celebrate the role of law in our society and to cultivate a deeper understanding of the legal profession.”
“President Dwight Eisenhower established the first Law Day in 1958 to mark the nation’s commitment to the rule of law,” Becerra explained. “In 1961, Congress issued a joint resolution designating May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day.”
Becerra said this year’s Law Day theme, “Separation of Powers: Framework for Freedom,” is an opportunity for people to consider how the government system is working today and for future generations.
“The Constitution’s principles of separation of powers and checks and balances preserve political liberty and provide a framework for freedom,” said Becerra of this year’s focus. “Yet, this framework is not self-executing. We the people must continually act to ensure that our constitutional democracy endures, preserving our liberties and advancing our rights.”
ABA leaders engage students
ABA President Hilarie Bass, President Elect Bob Carlson and other ABA leaders helped to engage the more than 75 students from North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Texas, Minnesota, Washington and Ohio in a discussion about the basic foundations of the separation of powers doctrine as defined in the U.S. Constitution.
By a show of hands and through discussions, students provided their opinions on everything from whether they thought the three branches of federal government were equal in power today, to what they thought could happen if power became too concentrated in one person or one branch.
When asked by a student what the biggest problem facing our government system today is, Becerra responded, “Apathy.”
“People have an easier time naming the Kardashian sisters than Supreme Court justices,” Becerra said. “Our nation is not going to be in a better place until you lead in an informed and active way.”
Bass said only about 26 percent of the population could name the three branches of government. She stressed the need for more informed voters.
“You all are the hope of the future. Don’t forget what you’ve learned today. You become the change agent for America because it sits in your hands,” Ruthe Catolico Ashley, chair of the Standing Committee on Public Education, told the students.
Participating students reported positive feedback. Dascha Clark, a student from Shadyside, Ohio, said she learned that, “The branches of government are more equal than the media portrays it to be.” She added, “It’s not 100 percent equal, though it should be, it’s not as corrupt as it seems.”
Another student, Nathaniel Fastwolf from Eagle Butte, S.D., said the Law Day Dialogue taught him a lot in a few minutes. “I’m inspired to do my own research now.” He added, “I took U.S. history, but this discussion is having me to rethink how I think things should run.”
Classrooms across the country can organize similar discussions using the National Law Day Planning Guide. The ABA’s Division for Public Education offers free resources for teachers to engage students in learning more about the separation of powers. A host of teaching aids are available, from lesson plans for all grade levels, on the Law Day webpage.