Lawyers Have a Lot to Teach
We learned, or should have, about our system of government when we were youngsters in civics and government classes.
These lessons taught us about the genius of the founders’ design which, for the first time in human history, incorporated the doctrine of separation of powers and a system of checks and balances into the framework of a democratic republic. The U.S. Constitution has proven to be so durable because Americans have understood, appreciated and fiercely defended its core features, from the tripartite system of separate but equal powers to the Bill of Rights.
By our training, lawyers and judges are especially suited and have a deep obligation to help educate Americans and those new to our country about the critical importance of separation of powers in our system of government. We must do our part to teach young people and adults about the vital role of the judiciary under our state and federal constitutions. While the roles and functions of the executive and legislative branches are generally well-known, the judiciary remains the least understood branch.
To learn more about Americans’ knowledge about our system of government, the ABA commissioned a survey by Harris Interactive in July. The results provide some hope, but also great concern. A shocking 40 percent of respondents to the survey could not correctly identify our three branches of government. While 82 percent described the principle of separation of powers as “very important” or “important,” 48 percent could not correctly define what “separation of powers” means. Perhaps most troubling, 44 percent could not correctly identify the core functions of the judicial branch.
These survey results and the alarming increase in rhetorical and physical attacks on the judiciary indicate a pressing need to improve the civic education of all Americans on the separation of powers and on the role of an independent judiciary. I have appointed the ABA Commission on Civic Education and the Separation of Powers to spearhead just such an initiative.
Retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley are serving as honorary co-chairs of the commission, and attorney Robert H. Rawson Jr. of Cleveland is the working chair. Commission members include distinguished former members of all three branches of government and leaders of national education organizations. They are working to improve civics education in our schools and communities by producing new resources designed to improve curricula and spark informed dialogues in communities throughout our country.
The ABA Division for Public Education is doing its part, with its new “Conversations on the Constitution” program that was introduced in conjunction with Constitution Day last month. The ABA developed this program to help educational institutions and government agencies meet a new federal requirement to conduct annual programs marking Constitution Day. Links to the program’s discussion topics can be found online at www.abanet.org/publiced/conversations/constitution/home.html.
The Commission on Civic Education and the Separation of Powers is also working with the 2006 Law Day planning committee to develop a range of educational materials. As you work in your communities to plan Law Day celebrations, I encourage you to follow the work of the commission and draw upon the excellent resources available in the Law Day Planning Guide, which will be distributed next spring.
The ABA and America’s lawyers will continue to safeguard the independence of our judiciary. In the long term, an educated public is the best defense against irresponsible attacks on our courts. In the short term, we must strongly oppose extremist attacks on the judiciary, whether they come from the left or the right.
Those who would tear down our courts for short-term political or other gain threaten the very fabric of our republic. It is our responsibility to ensure that judges are able to decide cases fairly and without fear of retribution, and that the judiciary receives the resources and respect it must have to do its job. If we do not protect our courts, our courts cannot protect us.