Chief Justice Warns That ‘Civic Education Has Fallen By the Wayside’

By Mark Walsh — December 31, 2019 4 min read
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U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. focused on civics education in his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary, saying “we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside.”

“In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital,” Roberts said in the report, which each year provides statistics on the judicial workload but also adopts a theme, often filled with historical references.

The year-end report is usually devoid of anything controversial, though a year ago Roberts used the report to push for tougher safeguards for judicial employees from workplace harassment. With Roberts preparing to preside over the impending impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in the U.S. Senate, the 2019 report includes a few passing references to justice and the importance of an independent judiciary.

“We should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary, a key source of national unity and stability,” Roberts wrote. “But we should also remember that justice is not inevitable. We should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity, and dispatch.”

Most of Roberts’ report is devoted to a discussion of civics.

“By virtue of their judicial responsibilities, judges are necessarily engaged in civic education,” Roberts wrote. He cited as one example the court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, “the great school desegregation case,” as he called it.

Then-Chief Justice Earl Warren “illustrated the power of a judicial decision as a teaching tool” by keeping his unanimous opinion for the court on such a contentious issue to a mere 11 pages, “short enough that newspapers could publish all or almost all of it and every citizen could understand the Court’s rationale,” Roberts wrote.

See Education Week’s Citizen Z project, featuring ongoing coverage of the role that schools are playing in preparing the next generation of citizens.

Roberts highlighted several civics education efforts of the federal courts, such as mock trials organized by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, in which students participate in realistic judicial exercises in real courtrooms and are presided over by federal judges.

The chief justice noted that three federal appeals courts have opened education-related centers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit recently opened its Justice for All Learning Center in the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in New York City, he said. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit has helped open the Judicial Learning Center at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis. And the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, has dedicated space in the Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse in Sacramento for the Anthony M. Kennedy Library and Learning Center, named for the Supreme Court justice who retired in 2018 and has been an advocate for civics education.

Roberts also noted that “individual judges at all levels of the federal court system, including bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges, are personally involved in national, regional, and local education programs.”

He mentioned the work of the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, who over the past two decades has “quietly volunteered as a tutor at a local elementary school, inspiring his court colleagues to join in the effort.”

That judge is Merrick Garland, whose nomination for the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama was blocked by Senate Republicans in 2016. Garland volunteers at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in the nation’s capital.

“I am confident that many other federal judges, without fanfare or acclaim, are playing similar selfless roles throughout the country,” Roberts said, who also mentioned efforts by retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to form iCivics, which provides educational resources about civics, including video games.

“As they say, to reach people you have to meet them where they are,” Roberts wrote in an aside, in reference to video games. He noted that Justice Sonia Sotomayor has picked up the work of O’Connor, who stepped back from public life in 2018 after she revealed a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. The chief justice also mentioned the education-related work of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

“Civic education, like all education, is a continuing enterprise and conversation,” Roberts said. “Each generation has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it.”

Photo: Chief Justice John Roberts joins other justices of the U.S. Supreme Court for an official group portrait at the Supreme Court Building in Washington, Thursday. June 1, 2017. —AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Related reading:

How History Class Divides Us

Schools Teach Civics. Do They Model It?

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.