Civics program helps turn students into lawyers

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Without the We the People program, Adam Packer might be conjugating Latin verbs rather than serving as general counsel at the Indiana Gaming Commission.

He credits the civic education and competition program as well as an advanced writing class he took as a senior at Castle High School in Warrick County with sparking his interest in the law. The intellectual study of learning how the “ancient document” that is the U.S. Constitution remains relevant today appealed to him and continues to intrigue him.

wtp06-15col.jpg Attorney Mary Runnells, Dr. Stephen King, professor of political science at Taylor University (center), and attorney Scott Barnhart judge a “We the People” middle school competition at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

“I think it opened law school to me,” Packer said. “Who knows what I would have become. I probably would be a Latin teacher. Cool but very different.”

The WTP program was introduced in 1987 to mark the bicentennial of the Constitution. A comprehensive curriculum aims to teach elementary, middle and high school students about democracy and civic responsibility while annual district, state and national competitions test students on their knowledge and analytical skills.

Although the program is not meant to be a pipeline to law school, Indiana attorneys who participated say it not only broadened their understanding of the Constitution but continues to shape their thinking today.

Packer volunteers with WTP, participating as a judge for the state competition. What he looks for among the students – ability to analyze the question, provide an answer, then back it up with current real life examples – is what he also wants from his staff attorneys.

Indiana is among the states with the largest participation rates in the WTP program with about 6,000 students from schools in all nine of the state’s Congressional districts entering competition. In addition, Hoosier teams regularly finish in the top 10 in the national high school competition.

The course material gives students a broad understanding of the Constitution and federal government by detailing the history and content of the document as well as exploring the reasoning and philosophy that shaped the Founding Fathers’ thinking and, by extension, our democracy today.

Lesson plans involve more than memorizing the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. For example, middle school students study the powers granted to the judicial branch, while high school students spend time examining the growing power of the presidency.

Questions during the 2012 national competition had high school students discussing the views of Federalists and anti-Federalists, how modern technology affects the Fourth Amendment, and what additional rights should be incorporated into the Constitution.

Like Packer, attorney Scott Barnhart gains renewed insight as he coaches an Indianapolis high school team and as he judges the state competitions. Barnhart, founding partner of Keffer Gilley Barnhart LLP, practices a fair amount of Constitutional law, and working with the students and hearing their questions and responses often deepens his understanding of the founding principles.

He was a member of the 1997 Castle High School team that won state and traveled to Washington, D.C., to compete in the WTP nationals. The trip was, he said, the most memorable experience of his high school years.

Another WTP experience that made an impression was working with a local attorney to prepare for the competitions. Barnhart was already considering becoming a lawyer before enrolling in the program, but interacting with the attorney gave him a different perspective.

“It helped me to understand what exactly being a lawyer is all about,” he said. Specifically, the questions the attorney asked the students taught him how lawyers think.

Barnhart went on to graduate from the University of Toledo College of Law and began his career as a deputy attorney general for the Office of the Indiana Attorney General.

Law firms lend a hand

A key player in the WTP program is the Indiana Bar Foundation which organizes the state competition and helps with the district contests every year. The contest format mimics a congressional hearing with students demonstrating their knowledge and critical thinking skills before a panel of volunteer judges. Even for students who either do not win or do not compete at all, the program is touted as being very effective in creating model citizens who vote at higher rates than their peers.

Despite the success and enthusiasm, Charles Dunlap, executive director of the foundation, worries about the nonprofit’s ability to sustain the program. Federal funding stopped when Congress killed earmarks two years ago and with that, Indiana lost its $300,000 appropriation.

The cut immediately ended the annual week-long summer institute for teachers, where the IBF would invite 30 teachers from around the state to Bloomington, at no cost, to learn how to teach the WTP curriculum. Also, the IBF is no longer able to provide all or most of the funds needed to send the winning high school team to nationals.

Still the program does garner strong support from the legal community. Among the donors are Bamberger Foreman Oswald & Hahn LLP, Barnes & Thornburg LLP, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, Allen County Bar Foundation, Lake County Bar Association, Indiana State Bar Association, Indiana Judges Association, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, and many private attorneys.

For the 2012 state competition, Taft Law opened its Indianapolis office to host the third round for the top-three high school teams. That round was cancelled in 2011 because of federal funding cuts, but this year, Taft donated space and recruited judges so the high school competition could return to its original format.

In addition, for the past several years, Faegre Baker Daniels has held a dress rehearsal to help the winning high school team prepare for national competition.

“The kids love it. They look forward to it,” Dunlap said of the practice round. The students are excited about going to a law firm, meeting the attorneys, and picking their brains about the Constitution.

Kathryne Feary-Gardner, attorney at Scopelitis Garvin Light Hanson & Feary P.C., was a member of the Lawrence Central High School team that won the state competition in 2003.

The WTP program did not inspire her to go to law school – her father is an attorney and after some youthful resistance, she followed in his footsteps. Yet, the curriculum had a lasting impact, shaping her views of civics as well as how she sees her role in a democratic society. And, her appreciation of what she learned has grown over time.

“It has an impact, tangible and intangible,” Feary-Gardner said. “Students who participate don’t forget.”

She is a little cloudy on how her team fared at nationals but, like Barnhart, she does recall Washington, D.C., as being an exciting and overwhelming experience. The biggest impression the trip made on her was when she realized she was representing Indiana to other students from around the country, most of whom had never met a Hoosier.

Now that she is a practicing attorney, Feary-Gardner stays engaged with the WTP program by volunteering as a judge for the district competitions. She likes participating and interacting with the students. She also enjoys letting people know just what can happen when students study the Constitution.

“I have my state ring to this day,” she said. “Even if clumsily or inappropriately, I find a way to bring it up because it’s pretty cool.”•


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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.