April 17, 2014

Civics Lesson

Cynthia Barnett | 3/1/2006
During a speech at the University of Florida last fall, retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spoke of political and physical threats against judges in the former Soviet republics, Eastern Europe and Zimbabwe. And then she spoke of political and physical threats against judges in the U.S. The stories were little different. Here in Florida, it is well-known that Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer had to don a bullet-proof vest because of death threats against him over his rulings in the Terri Schiavo case.

In the wake of that wrenching case, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, spoke of "a judiciary run amok." Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, suggested there may be a "cause and effect connection" between unpopular judicial rulings and "the recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country." O'Connor recounted other cases in which politicians threatened to cut judicial budgets or salaries because of unpopular decisions. "The experience of developing countries, former Communist countries and our own political culture teaches us that we must be ever-vigilant against those who would strong-arm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies," she warned.

Among the disturbing aspects to threats over "judicial activism" is how readily the public seems to buy into them; how little people seem to understand why the judiciary is independent in the first place. A poll conducted by the American Bar Association showed only 55% of Americans can correctly identify the three branches of government. Fewer than half knew what "separation of powers" meant or that one role of the judiciary is to determine how existing law applies to the facts of a case.

After seeing the ABA's results, the Florida Bar "became very concerned about our own citizens' knowledge of these vital principles of democracy," says President Alan B. Bookman. The Bar hired Harris Interactive to poll Floridians and found only 59% of those surveyed knew that the three branches of government are legislative, executive and judicial. The second-most-frequent answer was "local, state and federal," followed by "Republican, Democrat and Independent."

In response, both the national and state Bars are embarking on educational efforts. The Florida Bar is focusing on civic education for the state's schoolchildren. According to the Florida Law Related Education Association, fewer than 10% of Florida's 67 counties require civics classes in middle school. ABA President Michael S. Greco, meanwhile, has appointed a Commission on Civic Education and the Separation of Powers, co-chaired by O'Connor and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

"Judicial independence doesn't happen all by itself," O'Connor said in her visit to Gainesville last fall. "It's tremendously hard to create -- and easier than most people imagine to destroy."

Tags: Politics & Law, Government/Politics & Law

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