Education

Justice Gorsuch Tells Students: The Constitution Is in Your Hands to Protect

By Mark Walsh — September 17, 2020 4 min read
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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch on Thursday implored a nationwide audience of K-12 students on Zoom to study the U.S. Constitution and prepare to become the next generation that will try to protect it and achieve its ideals.

“First, learn about it,” Gorsuch said in a Constitution Day session sponsored by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. “This is going to be in your hands to preserve, protect, and defend.”

Gorsuch, who has written and spoken before about the importance of civics education, said he worries that “60 percent of people fail our citizenship test” and “only about a third can identify three branches of government.”

And, as he has noted before, “10 percent believe that Judith Sheindlin serves on the Supreme Court.” That person is better known as Judge Judy, the popular TV judge, but she is not one of his colleagues on the nation’s highest court, Gorsuch reminded the young people.

Gorsuch was one of three justices to speak or be honored in online sessions on Thursday to mark Constitution Day. Justice Stephen G. Breyer spoke on Zoom to law students at George Washington University in Washington, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was to be honored in the evening with the Liberty Medal in a virtual ceremony by the National Constitution Center, though Ginsburg was not going to participate in the event.

Breyer is perhaps the court’s most accomplished remote speaker after addressing a New York City high school via Zoom early in the coronavirus pandemic and doing other sessions. Speaking Thursday from what appeared to be a bedroom in his home in Cambridge, Mass., Breyer touched on school desegregation cases and how the court is handling working virtually during the pandemic.

There is “a plus and a minus” to hearing arguments over the telephone, as the high court did in May and will do again for its first set of arguments of the new term that begins Oct. 5, Breyer said. The telephone arguments force the justices to listen more closely, and “I thought that was a plus,” he said. But the negatives include that there is less of a dialogue than when the justices hear arguments in the courtroom, he said.

“I like it, but I’m not sure I’d like to do it all the time,” Breyer said about the remote arguments.

Asked by one student which opinion of his over his many years as a judge and justice he would choose to be judged on, Breyer cited his dissent in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, the 2007 case which sharply limited the ways school districts could voluntarily consider race in drawing student attendance zones.

“My view was that affirmative action, to a degree, is permitted by the 14th Amendment” to bring underrepresented minorities “into society,” Breyer said in the Zoom session.

Meanwhile, Gorsuch spoke to some 1,300 registered participants in the K-12 town hall, though likely more were turning in because some entire classes were counted as one registrant, the National Constitution Center said.

Speaking from his chambers at the Supreme Court and sporting a neatly trimmed pandemic beard that he didn’t have when last visible to the public in the spring, Gorsuch echoed Breyer in noting some frustration in conducting business over the telephone.

“It’s been hard not to see my colleagues” for the justices’ weekly conferences, Gorsuch said. “I don’t have anything to complain about, but I do miss that in-person dialogue.”

Responding to student questions read by Jeffrey Rosen, the president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, Gorsuch noted that he and his family finally saw the popular musical “Hamilton” on Disney Plus over the summer.

“It is fantastic, but my only complaint is that James Madison doesn’t come across very well,” Gorsuch said. The justice has portraits of Madison and the first Justice John Marshall Harlan in his chambers, he said. Harlan was the sole dissenter to the court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that upheld “separate but equal” facilities for Black Americans.

Harlan “stood up for enforcing the original meaning of the 14th Amendment,” Gorsuch said, a view that eventually prevailed in the court’s 1954 school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Asked about his favorite classes in school, Gorsuch said that he liked science “because we got to blow things up.” He also enjoyed playing dodgeball in physical education class, he said, but his true favorite subjects were history and literature.

Gorsuch noted that Justice Byron R. White, for whom he clerked the term after White had retired from the court in 1993, instilled a sense of humility by walking around the court’s hallways, filled with portraits of past justices, and noting that most were now forgotten to history.

Asked by Rosen how he would tell students to maintain such humility, Gorsuch said, “I just say to those young folks, be persistent, work hard, be fair.”

“You know all these virtues,” the justice said. “Your grandmother taught them to you. Your mother taught them. Your teachers, too. I’m just so grateful for all the teachers of America who are watching right now and helping the children through this difficult time.”

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

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