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Teaching Our Youth Basic Concepts About the Courts and the Law

Oct 1998

Cynicism, distrust, apathy--singly or in combination, these are the moods with which many Americans today view governmental leaders and institutions. Plainly, our governmental leaders and institutions have failed us on too many occasions, and those failures both explain and justify the public’s negative attitude. But they provide only a partial explanation. Cynicism, distrust and apathy are also rooted in widespread ignorance of our governmental institutions, their interrelationships and the individuals who work within them.

Americans know surprisingly little about the country’s public servants. Think of the name recognition polls in recent years and the remarkably low ratings many political candidates and even incumbent office holders have received. It has been reported that nearly two-thirds of the adult population cannot name a single justice of the United States Supreme Court. And there is even less public knowledge and understanding of political institutions and the laws that govern their operation. For example, many people have been willing to express an unqualified opinion about whether the Attorney General should appoint an Independent Counsel to investigate allegations of campaign finance improprieties without knowing the statutory criteria for making such an appointment.

If ignorance of our governmental institutions and laws is pervasive among adults, we should not be surprised that it is even more pervasive among our children. A survey of eighth-graders disclosed that less than 40% knew that Congress is the body responsible for enacting federal statutes. How fitting then that New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye devoted her Law Day address this year to stressing the necessity to make “a commitment to increasing the next generation’s understanding of the history, the workings and the value of our justice system.?And not solely the justice system but, I would add, other public institutions as well. This Association has made that commitment, and I would like to tell you the principal ways in which we are living up to it.

If you had looked into the large meeting hall at the House of the Association on the morning of Wednesday, April 27, you would have seen more than 300 seventh grade students from schools all over the city who had ridden buses to 44th Street to participate in the closing event of a pilot project undertaken by the New York City Board of Education in collaboration with the Association’s Committee on Education and the Law. The project had its genesis in a meeting in Judge Kaye’s chambers in the spring of 1997, attended by Chancellor Rudy Crew and other representatives of the Board of Education, and was devised to respond to Judge Kaye’s suggestion that the school system teach our youth basic concepts about courts and the law.

The project began in the fall of 1997 in ten schools located in all five boroughs. More than 700 school children participated. The curriculum covered the basics of our governmental structure, judicial system, constitutional principles and dispute resolution mechanisms. Laurie Milder, Special Counsel to the Association’s Robert B. McKay Community Outreach Law Program (COLP), coordinated visits to the classrooms of students participating in the project by approximately 30 lawyers and judges who gave presentations that reinforced the project curriculum. The judges also invited the students to visit courtrooms and observe actual court proceedings.

The culminating event on April 27 was coordinated by Beth J. Lief and Robin A. Boyle, Chair and Secretary, respectively, of the Committee on Education and the Law. The program took the form of a debate between proponents and opponents of school uniforms and used different persuasive techniques, including speech, graphics and “infomercials.?Chief Judge Kaye, Deputy Chancellor Harry Spence, Association member Harold Levy and I judged the competition. I wish I could convey to you the enthusiasm of the students and the satisfaction that the other judges and I felt in witnessing an event that would change (perhaps by only a few degrees) the course on which some of these students were headed. The objective of the project was to teach basic concepts of law and governance, not to recruit law school students, but I could not help wondering, as I gazed out at the more than 300 students, how many lawyers, judges and legislators were in the audience.

The seventh-grade project is the most recent, but by no means the only, Association initiative targeted at public education.

*In the Lloyd K. Garrison Leadership Program, students selected from alternative high schools throughout the city receive weekly instruction on civil rights, criminal justice, the court system and the legal profession; they plan a forum on a legal issue affecting their community; and an annual alumni event is held each year for past program participants.

*To supplement law-related courses, COLP arranges for attorneys to speak to students about their respective fields of practice and organizes courtroom and prison tours.

*The Committee on Senior Lawyers (Roger V. Pugh, Jr., Chair) sponsors a Mentor Program that recruits attorneys and matches them one-on-one with students in the Law and Justice Institute at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School.

*In the Shadow-A-Judge Program sponsored by the Committee on Women in the Courts (Rosalyn Heather Richter, Chair), students have the opportunity to observe trials, confer with attorneys and meet with judges.

*Members of the Committee on Communications and Media Law (Jan Friedman Constantine, Chair) conduct seminars on such subjects as libel, privacy and access to court and governmental proceedings for students who publish high school newspapers.

*The Association is particularly proud of its Thurgood Marshall Summer Law Internship Program (Vaughn J. Buffalo, Chair), which this year placed 46 high school students in paying jobs with 43 legal employers. The students performed a variety of law-related tasks and, most importantly, were exposed to the legal profession in a real world setting.

*Perhaps we will never be able to measure quantitatively the success of the programs I’ve briefly described, but I strongly doubt there is any Association member who has participated in the programs who does not believe that they perform an immensely valuable function in teaching the fundamentals of law and government to the youth of today who will be the electorate of tomorrow.

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