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How do bills become law? Ask these New Jersey students

As we celebrate America’s birthday on July 4, take a moment to applaud the civic knowledge and political savvy of the Advanced Placement Government and Politics class at New Jersey’s Highstown High School. 

Highstown High School students developed legislation to release sealed records of unsolved crimes.

Highstown High School students developed legislation to release sealed records of unsolved crimes.

Four years ago, the class, led by teacher Stuart Wexler, was studying unsolved bombings and killings from the civil rights movement. Students learned that many of the records on these cold cases were sealed, and Freedom of Information Act responses could take up to 450 days and were subject to heavy redactions.

So, the class came up with an ambitious goal of drafting and passing federal legislation to have the records released. They modeled their bill on the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which declassified government records about Kennedy’s assassination and gave the American Bar Association a role in selecting review board members.

The students took field trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby the staffs of senators and representatives and even wrote an op-ed in Politico describing their efforts. The op-ed inspired Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) to introduce the bill in the House.

The class also contacted Alabama Sen. Doug Jones because of his successful prosecution as a U.S. attorney of the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church more than 37 years earlier. Jones (D-Ala.)  then introduced the bill in the Senate after he won a 2017 special election. Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) co-sponsored the bill.

This bill requires the National Archives and Records Administration to collect civil rights cold case records and publish an index to the collection so that the public can have access to them. It also establishes the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board, an independent agency of impartial private citizens that will decide if agencies can withhold any information. The bill authorizes the ABA, the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society of American Archivists to submit nominees to serve on the five-member board, which will be appointed by the president. The review board must include at least one historian and one attorney. 

The bill passed the House Oversight Committee in October 2018, then the Senate Homeland Security Committee in December, followed by a unanimous voice vote in the Senate on Dec. 17 and a vote of 376 to 6 in the House on Dec. 21. The class then started tweeting at President Donald Trump, his friends, broadcasters and anyone else who might convince the president to sign the bill. They succeeded, and the bill was signed Jan. 8, 2019.

In the process, the class learned compromise was important to passage.  At first, the bill favored the release of most records.  By final passage, the bill was adjusted to focus on collecting the records and then balancing the Department of Justice’s interest with the need for transparency.

Historians believe this marks the first time a high school class has drafted successful national legislation. But the process is not over for the Highstown class. A civilian panel must be appointed by the president to oversee the release of cold-case files. Financing needs to be allocated for the program, estimated at $10 million by the Congressional Budget Office

The House appropriations committee recently negotiated almost $4.1 million for gathering records by the archives and establishing the board that will facilitate the review process.

Holly Cook, director of the ABA’s Governmental Affairs Office, visited the class in June to offer her congratulations and support. “These kids and their teacher have accomplished something truly remarkable,” Cook said. “The ABA wants to encourage and nurture this kind of civic awareness and engagement in our nation’s youth. Our country’s future will be the better for it.”

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