Chinn: A Civics Lesson for All of Us

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iba-chinn-scott“Do you trust the courts to be an effective check on the executive and legislative branches given your view that the protections of the 4th and 5th Amendments have been inadequate to stop the creation of a ‘National Surveillance State’,” I asked.

“While we don’t think that Congress should pass a so-called ‘superstatute’ that preempts other federal and state laws establishing protections for individuals against the government and private actors, we do think that Congress, and not the courts, should take the leading role on balancing the competing interests at stake in the National Security State – for example, by curbing the reach of the Patriot Act,” responded the constitutional expert.

The setting was a classroom at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia on April 30. The event was the national finals of the We the People Competition, sponsored by the Center for Civic Education. I was a judge for that competition. The constitutional expert was a high school student from one of the 49 jurisdictions represented at the competition (47 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands).

So let’s start there – that this high school student, representing a panel of four students assigned to the topic of “Twenty-first Century Challenges to American Constitutional Democracy” was more articulate on the issue than most of the lawyers I know. And through the course of my two days judging the student panels, it is fair to say that this knowledgeable student wasn’t alone. Many of his peers from across the country met and exceeded what we would think even most enlightened Americans would know about the Constitution, the principles it is based on, and its historical application. Being a judge for a competition like this is one of the best things you’ll ever do to promote your faith in America and its values. (The other one is to take part in or observe a naturalization ceremony.)

For an appeal to your home state pride, you should know that the Indiana team (from Munster High School) finished a lofty fifth out of the 56 teams participating. Because they made it to the final round, they competed in a Congressional hearing room at the U.S. Capitol. Indiana has a strong network of We the People teams and the Indiana Bar Foundation coordinates this and other civic education programs around the state.

But there is something even more challenging on the horizon for civic education than the competition itself. You guessed it: funding. There is probably more money spent copying the paperwork for the Defense Reauthorization Act (seriously . . . it is $662 Billion in 2012) than it would take to fund every well-known civic education program in the country. Yet federal funding has been cut for civic education in recent years. (Next time someone tells you Congressional earmarks are always bad, think about losing the ones supporting civic education.) This has led to canceled and diminished programs and has also led to competition among civic education providers for precious grant dollars. Competitive grant funding may make sense for encouraging the development of the best ideas in new spheres or in ones needing reform. But does that really fit civics education? Don’t we want more organizations teaching more kids the things that renew American Democracy?

The American Bar Association too has a major commitment to promoting civic education, having established the ABA Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools in 2010. My sense is that this Commission is also caught up in the debates over funding. I respectfully submit that the Commission’s special advisor, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is wrong when she excuses federal and state law makers for budget cuts to civic education programs arguing that civic educators should be doing more with less. I think we should challenge ourselves to do more with less, but that we should also just have more to do more with.

Above, I said that judging high school civic competitors and attending naturalization ceremonies were the two most affirming things to promote your faith in American values. The third, in my book, is a combination of the first two — judging high school civics competitors who are first-generation children of immigrants on a constitutional question regarding immigration. I got to do that over the national finals weekend. It was just one part of my civics lesson.•


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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.