TALLAHASSEE – The May 2016 issue of the Florida Bar Journal addressed multiple angles of civic education and ways to create a more trusting relationship between the people and the legal system.
Richard H. Levenstein and Judge Michelle Sisco wrote an article entitled “Crisis of Knowledge: The Importance of Educating the Public About the Role of Fair and Impartial Courts in Our System of Government,” which explained that United States adults are suffering a civics education deficit on a large scale.
“This deficit has resulted in a large-scale lack of knowledge and skills on the part of the adult population in the areas of civics and government, and perhaps most importantly, with respect to the existence of, purpose for, and workings of the judicial branch of government,” they said in the article.
The article said that this is a cause for concern and it is part of the reason there has become growing skepticism in government and law.
“The American public’s perception of their government, including the judicial branch, is in significant decline,” the article said. “While Americans’ trust in the judiciary is still higher than that of either the executive or legislative branches of government, two recent polls show that the public’s perception of the judicial branch is nonetheless at a record low.”
The article further explained that the majority of Florida adults were only aware of some of the basic structures of government, based on a 2005 Harris Interactive poll. The poll found that over half of Florida adults did not know how to define “separation of powers” or “checks and balances,” even if they claimed that they knew both were important. Furthermore, less than six in 10 adults could identify the three branches of government.
“The good news is that, nationally, Florida leads the way in attempting to reduce and eliminate the civics education deficit of its citizens,” the article said. “The Florida Bar’s Constitutional Judiciary Committee, in response to the Harris Poll, created the Benchmarks Adult Civics Education Program to enable and encourage attorneys and judges to make presentations to adult gatherings.”
The article explained that these gatherings try to include civic organizations such as Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis clubs. They also try to reach homeowners and condominium associations, community centers, community colleges, high school classes and adult educational classes.
“The Benchmarks Program has been supported by the Constitutional Judiciary Committee since its inception, and its members and chairs have long been enthusiastic presenters and instructors,” the article said.
The Benchmark Program tries to educate adults on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the courts and judicial branch and various special topics, the article explained. It also has started to inspire other states to follow suit.
“The Florida Benchmarks Program serves as a model for adult civics education programs in other states. New Jersey, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Arizona, Vermont and North Carolina have all created adult civics education programs for judges and/or attorneys to educate citizens about the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary,” they said. “Additionally, Colorado created its own program, Our Courts Colorado, which is a program similar in nature to the Benchmarks program; however, its activities are designed exclusively for use by judges.”
The article argues that if only 10 percent of judges and lawyers across the United States helped educate adults on civic duties, this trend that Florida has helped inspire will grow across the states exponentially.