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Of the People, By the People, For the People: The Importance of Civics Education

Posted By Administration, Monday, August 7, 2017

By Kate Wilson

Attorney at law

2017 SCCBA President

It is hard to believe that as I write this month’s President’s Column we are more than halfway through 2017 and just a few weeks away from the start of a new school year.  Like many organizations, while we are busy executing on our goals and objectives for 2017, the SCCBA is also busy planning for 2018.  In fact, last week I attended a Strategic Planning Committee meeting where President-Elect Kevin Hammon shared his goals and vision for the association in 2018.  I was happy to learn that Kevin plans to continue his long-standing commitment to law related education and he will focus a significant amount of his time as SCCBA President on promoting legal and civics education with young people in our community. 

The United States is the oldest truly democratic form of government in the world and in his Gettysburg Address in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln aptly described America as a government, “of the people, for the people, by the people.”  However, this means for our democracy to flourish and function at its highest level, we must have citizens who are educated, engaged and committed to continuing our democracy.  Unfortunately, surveys and polls regularly show that American citizens lack a basic understanding of how our government operates.  In fact, only 1 in 3 Americans can name the three branches of government. 

When citizens lack basic information and an understanding of how our government operates, it can leave them ill equipped to act as the voice of the people.  For example, as many of my predecessors have written about and as Judge Lucas reminded us in her March 2017 guest article, while our government is divided into separate executive, legislative and judicial branches, our court systems are woefully underfunded making it difficult to provide the services and programs to which the public is entitled.  In California alone, over $1 billion has been taken out of the judicial branch budget since 2010 and the years of underfunding have impaired our courts’ ability to serve the public in the way our judicial officers want to serve.  Despite this fact, there has been a lack of public outcry about our court funding crisis.  I believe this is the case because many people do not clearly appreciate how the underfunding of our courts can undermine our judicial branch and in turn place in jeopardy many of the rights and freedoms that we all enjoy.  In 2012 then SCCBA President Mindy Morton noted that the judicial branch of our government is the one charged with protecting our citizens’ rights and freedoms in a direct manner on a day-to-day basis.  And, as Mindy regularly reminded us throughout her term as SCCBA President, “No Courts, No Freedom, No Justice.”  

A strong civics education starting in youth will go a long way to developing an educated, engaged and responsible citizenry.  Specifically, when we teach young people the basics of how our government works it instills in them the importance of the independence of the three branches of government and how they must remain separate as a means of checks and balances while at the same time working together to pass and enforce laws.  In addition, a civics education gives individuals the tools they need to embrace that it is the people that the government must serve and to whom it must answer.  An early civics education can also provide individuals with a sense of ownership and commitment to our democracy by emphasizing the importance and privilege of being the voice of the people, voting and making informed decisions.  An early civics education lays the foundation that each and every one of us must take responsibility for how our government operates and we must take that responsibility seriously by making our voices heard, both in support of and opposition to our government. 

How does promoting a civics education with young people and the public involve attorneys?  As attorneys, we are well educated in the workings of our government as well as protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals.  We are also well positioned to understand the limitations of government and to identify when those limits may be exceeded.   Moreover, we bear a duty to foster and protect our democracy and we swear an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.  As part of our commitment, we can play a big role in delivering a solid civics education to our community.  Just a few ways that we can easily get involved include joining the SCCBA’s Law Related Education Committee, volunteering for the annual Santa Clara County Mock Trial Tournament, participating in Law Day each May, lobbying our legislators regarding important issues, or just talking with our family, friends and neighbors about issues such as court funding and the importance of maintaining an independent judiciary and three separate and distinct branches of government.  In addition, as we move into 2018, I know that 2018 SCCBA President Kevin Hammon will identify further opportunities and programs where we can give back and promote a greater civics education and law related education for our community.  I encourage each and everyone one of us to get involved and I look forward to working with you on one or more of these initiatives in the near future.  

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