Law Day, a day in which students engage with and learn about the legal system, is celebrating its 60th anniversary in May with the theme of Separation of Powers: Framework for Freedom. However, a 2017 Annenberg poll shows that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, and 33 percent can’t name one.
Add to those sobering statistics the results of Weber Shandwick’s annual survey on civility in America, and there is even more reason to be alarmed. This global communication firm found that more than 90 percent of Americans say that, while civility is important to a functioning democracy, the nation has a civility problem.
Concerns about the gap in civic knowledge and the lack of civility in some public discourse have motivated us and other federal judges and attorneys to participate in a national initiative — called Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions — to bring young people into our federal courthouses to have a positive, firsthand experience with the Third Branch and to learn how we use civil discourse to address emotional, high-stakes controversies.
Daily in our courtrooms, judges manage the process of civil discourse in conflicts over life and liberty. That is why, with volunteer attorneys from the local Federal Bar Association, we are offering high schools this courtroom program centered on teen-relevant hearings that culminate in jury deliberations on issues of importance to young people.
At our first civics day at the Tucson federal courthouse, the junior class of City High School joined us for a morning of civil-discourse skill-building, respectful debate, candid conversation and lunch. The students’ human experience with a judge and volunteer lawyers relieved much of the fear they felt upon entering the courthouse, and they appreciated it as a unique opportunity.
Six weeks later, when asked to write about the meaning of perspective, a majority of the students referenced their day in court. As one student put it: “I was a juror. After being in that situation, I realized how jury duty is important. I never took it into consideration that the attorneys are not only trying to make a good impression on the judge but most importantly the jury. If it wasn’t for this program that I participated in, I wouldn’t have known that the jury holds so much power. Of course, I’ve been told that before although I wouldn’t have truly grasped it if I haven’t experienced it myself.”
These simulations and conversations draw the abstract concepts of rule of law, judicial independence and separation of powers out of textbooks and into the context of their lives. After the hearing, the students grappled with a series of relatable scenarios they could find themselves in without realizing that their decisions could have legal and long-term consequences. They also heard the judge’s perspectives on their decisions and had the opportunity to ask questions on any topic.
This new, national initiative is an ongoing commitment in keeping with the longevity of the Law Day tradition. Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions is a way that judges and lawyers are demonstrating our commitment to keeping the civil discourse of democracy alive with the next generation of jurors, journalists, and engaged members of our communities.