Monday, August 10, 2009

Retired Justice Souter on the dangerous state of civic education

Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter spoke to the American Bar Association on August 1, 2009, on the importance of reviving civic education in America. He spoke of his alarm from survey results that 2/3rds of the people in the United States cannot name all three branches of the national government. "This is something to worry about," said Justice Souter. His address to the Opening Assembly can be viewed here.

Here are some highlights from his approximately 18-minute speech. If you have some time, I can highly recommend viewing the video.

Growing up as a boy in New Hampshire, Justice Souter recalls going to the annual town meetings, which he describes as "probably the most radical exercise in American democracy you can find, in which all the voters of the town who want to get together show up to form the town's legislative assembly.

He learned three basic things from the town meetings:

(1) "Although we talk about the government, the government of the town was in fact a divided power. There was a clear sense of the line between the legislative power - the power of the things the town meeting could do - and the power to put the works of the town meeting into effect, the executive power."

(2)"There was also a vertical line - the powers between the town and the state. There was a practical appreciation between local power to affect our town, and state power to affect many towns.

(3)"The people who had the power in the town were expected to treat everyone else decently as they used their power. It didn't matter whether someone was rich or poor, young or old, sensible or foolish, everybody got the same chance to have a say."

Today, if the majority of people do not understand these basic principles, the division of powers, they will not see the importance of preserving an independent judiciary.

"A judge's very job is often to take the unpopular course, to take action at odds with the legislative and executive branches, at odds with the popular will of the moment."

Over 200 years ago, as the story goes, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government the new constitution proposed - a monarchy or a republic? "He answered, 'a republic, if you can keep it.' He understood that a republic can be lost, and one way it may be lost is by a kind of erosion in the minds of the people."

"Your president (Obama) is ready - he has pledged himself to support a committee charged with establishing working groups to look into the condition of civic education in each of the 50 states, and to support the legislation and the administration needed, state by state, to ensure that a rising generation will not duplicate the dangerous state of civic knowledge today."

The late judge Richard Arnold made the best case for why we must preserve judicial independence in just seven words: "There has a to be a safe place."

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Christena said...
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