TALLAHASSEE – In the May 2016 issue of the Florida Bar Journal, Justice R. Fred Lewis wrote an article addressing his dedication to educating students on the importance of democracy and the legal system, and how his Justice Teaching program has become a success in Florida.
Lewis explained that he visited three different public schools in 1999 and discovered how uninformed the students were about the legal system, the Constitution and the importance of civic duties.
“From those visits, however, it became readily apparent that our students demonstrated a concerning lack of civic competence, although it was not at all attributed to a lack of interest or effort on the part of our students, teachers and schools,” he wrote. “The truth is found in understanding that a democracy is not hereditary. Rather, it must be crafted for, and imparted to, each generation.”
Lewis further argued that the preserving a democratic way of life can only be accomplished through knowledge, which also cannot be achieved without education.
“A citizenry that understands the value of a democracy will be the force that determines the future of our nation, not the demagogues who appeal to the popular desires and prejudices of the moment,” he wrote. “With these tenets in mind, and with a desire to guard the constitutional liberties fought for so vigorously by our founding fathers, I realized that our students required and deserved civic education conveyed through relatable, real-life examples.”
Based upon Lewis’ philosophy and past experiences with students, when he became chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court in 2006, he created Justice Teaching, an initiative that would place a judge or attorney volunteer with every public school in Florida.
“These dedicated members, who shared my vision, worked to increase awareness about Justice Teaching within legal and educational communities at the local level,” he wrote. “Soon after the creation of Justice Teaching, hundreds of schools were paired with a volunteer. By 2008, we had covered every public school in Florida with very few exceptions, and the response to Justice Teaching was so positive that we expanded the initiative to private schools.”
Lewis explained that Justice Teaching is going on 10 years.
"Our success is reflected in the thousands upon thousands of students who have participated in these hands-on programs and better understand our governmental structure, why our nation exists, how it was formed, and the functions of the three branches of government that were designated by our forefathers so our country would have ordered liberty.
“It is my hope that the reach of Justice Teaching will continue to fulfill the highest goal for our nation, which is to have a well-informed citizenry that can operate and maintain the government structure that has been established for the past 230 years, and also possesses a full and healthy recognition of the individual liberties that date as far back as Magna Carta,” he wrote.
Lewis also explained that a non-partisan approach is imperative to Justice Teaching.
“Justice Teaching volunteers are trained to recognize the critical importance of presenting sessions in a nonpartisan, objective manner,” he wrote. “The sessions are designed to prepare students to think through complex scenarios using critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. As a result, students have an opportunity to explore constitutional issues in an open, neutral environment as they reflect upon the issues that impact their lives.”