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February 07, 2023

Judges strive to meet students ‘where they are’ in civics knowledge

Our country and society are divided over many issues. These divisions are aggravated by incivility in public discourse and a general lack of understanding of civics. Such forces seriously undermine the values the legal profession stands for, including the peaceful resolution of disputes with access to justice and due process for all, the right to protest peacefully and the peaceful transfer of power following free and fair elections.

American Bar Association President Deborah Enix-Ross has made the 3 C’s — civics, civility and collaboration — a focus of her term, calling them the Cornerstones of Democracy. Lawyers must lead the way in promoting the three, which are critical to restoring confidence in the rule of law and empowering people to work toward a more just society.

At the ABA Midyear Meeting in New Orleans, the Cornerstones of Democracy Commission hosted a Feb. 5 panel, “Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility, Collaboration,” which addressed what judges, lawyers, teachers, legislators and the business community can do to enhance civics education in schools, communities and business environments.

The panel was moderated by Oregon Supreme Court Judge Adrienne Nelson, co-chair of the Cornerstones Commission. She was joined by Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice John L. Weimer, Judge Tiffany Gauthier Chase of the 1st District of the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, and Carl Dermady, a teacher and consultant in Louisiana who has a passion for social studies and civics.

The panel stressed that judges and lawyers in the classroom with teachers can enhance basic civics knowledge and lead to a more informed and participatory citizenry.

Weimer believed strongly in this and sent an email his first day as chief justice to all Louisiana judges asking them to partner with libraries, school boards, teacher associations, state civics associations — anyone who could help advance civics education.

Weimer said he was deeply troubled by the rise of juvenile crime during his tenure as a judge and too often heard the words, “I didn’t know it was wrong” when young people were in court for an offense. He saw the desperate need to beef up civics education for children and enlisted his fellow judges.

Although judges have been going to classrooms for years, Chase said that Weimer’s encouragement is critical. “Leadership comes from the top,” she said. She talked about how discouraging it is for her as a judge to see children and their families in court at their worst. She much prefers reaching them in classrooms — or as she puts it “in their place, not our place.”

“You have to meet them where they are,” Chase emphasized, adding “you go where you are needed.”

Dermady insisted that civics is the most important subject a student can learn. “Not taught. Learned,” he said. “Civics cannot be taught from a textbook, you have to live it.”

He described the program his school runs with full-fledged elections of students to executive and legislative offices, complete with pollsters, media members, teacher and well-heeled donors, and even a Supreme Court selected from the student body.

By debating controversial topics — for both the school and society at large — Dermady said that students became engaged and learned how to debate in a civil manner and collaborate to reach compromises.

Dermady decried all the negative forces on children that makes society uncivil (“Social media is conflict,” he said) and stressed the importance of participation in civics curriculum.

Weimer said he tries to explain the concept of rule of law by asking people to picture a very busy intersection. “Now turn off the red light, the green light, the caution light and everything comes to a halt without the rules to govern it.” That is our system of justice as well, he said.

Chase agreed and explained that if you are disenfranchised by the justice system as many are, terms like the rule of law do not mean much. But programs where judges reach out to classrooms and students to help make the rules and concepts more understandable, coupled with more robust civics education, can make a difference.