U.S. Supreme Court

Souter Urges ABA to Help Lead Efforts to Improve Civics Education #ABAChicago

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David H. Souter. Photo by REP3

Like the manner of the man who delivered it, the message was simple, direct and steeped in the heritage of traditional New England democracy.

The man was David H. Souter, who recently retired from the U.S. Supreme Court. His message on Saturday to the opening assembly of the ABA Annual Meeting was this: “We have to do something to improve civic education in the United States.”

Speaking from the stage of Orchestra Hall at Chicago’s Symphony Center, Souter warned that specific problems facing the nation’s courts—such as funding shortages or interference from the other branches—are not the real threat to judicial independence. Rather, he said, “the root problem is a public majority unaware of the basic shape of government.”

In making his case, Souter invoked his recollections of the annual town meetings that were held every March in Weare, N.H. Attending those meetings as a young boy, he said, established an early understanding of the separation of powers among the government branches and the limits on those powers. For him and other children of the town, those lessons were locked in by the time they took civics classes in high school, he said.

But not too long ago, Souter attended a conference on judicial independence, where attendees heard a report on a survey showing that two-thirds of U.S. citizens cannot name all three branches of government.

“This is something to worry about,” he said. “The idea of judicial independence must be practically meaningless” for someone with that lack of knowledge about basic government structures.

“We have to take on the job of making American civics education real again,” said Souter, who called on the ABA to play a leading role in that effort. “What more important work can you do?” he asked.

The association already is on task, said ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. of Birmingham, Ala., who presided over the opening assembly. In closing the ceremony, he noted that incoming President Carolyn B. Lamm of Washington, D.C., requested funding to support initial efforts to look into the need for better civics education, and that Stephen N. Zack of Miami, who becomes president-elect at the close of the meeting on Tuesday, has indicated he will make civics one of his priorities.

See video of the speech from ABANow.org:

More on the Annual Meeting ‘09 here:

Why is #ABAChicago in our Annual Meeting headlines? Check out our hashtags post: “ABA Annual Meeting 2009 on Twitter

ABA Journal’s Annual Meeting coverage at this link.

Flickr Slideshow: ABA Journal snapshots from Annual Meeting.

ABA Annual Meeting site.

Interactive updates on the Annual Meeting from ABA Media Relations at ABANow.org.

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