Law & Courts

In a Chat, Two U.S. Supreme Court Justices Talk Civics, Media Literacy

By Mark Walsh — July 29, 2022 3 min read
Civics Justices 07292022 172183035
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Two U.S. Supreme Court justices, in a rare public discussion about education, said civics education must involve more than teaching about government but should include the duties of citizenship as well as media literacy and critical thinking in an age when much disinformation is being spread.

“Most people think about civics as learning about government—how it functions and what each branch of the government does, et cetera,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said during a recorded session conducted in May and played Thursday at an education forum of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. “When I think about civics, it’s not just how does the government work, but how does our society work.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett recalled that when a class of 3rd or 4th graders wrote letters to her recently, the justice’s 11-year-old daughter Juliet took an interest and agreed to write letters in response. But when she found that some of the students asked Barrett how she liked “making laws,” Juliet became frustrated, sending a response to the entire class.

“She said, ‘I know it’s really confusing,’” Barrett recounted, before offering more of her daughter’s response. “‘People think the Supreme Court makes laws. But that’s not what the Supreme Court does. They don’t make laws, that’s Congress.’”

“I was kind of proud of her,” Barrett said. “I thought, wow, I guess our dinner table conversations are sinking in.”

Sotomayor and Barrett were interviewed by Yale Law Professor Akhil Reeh Amar for more than an hour about civics and education and the video was shown July 28 as part of the education summit of the Ronald Reagan Institute, which is affiliated with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum and has a Center on Civics, Education, and Opportunity.

The interview was recorded May 12, not long after there was a leak of the draft opinion in the major abortion case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In line with the draft, the court in its June 24 final opinion overruled Roe v. Wade and ended the federal constitutional right to abortion.

Amar did not ask Sotomayor or Barrett about the then-recently leaked draft. He did note that “America is so divided and polarized now,” and that the two justices are often on opposite sides of many issues.

“But here is the amazing thing, here you are both at this event,” Amar said. “This is really special.”

Justices say they sometimes succeed in persuading each other to change views in cases

Sotomayor has been active in civics education for years, serving on the board of iCivics, the organization that develops civics-related computer games and was founded by retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Sotomayor has often appeared with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to discuss civics, including at an event in April 2021, just months after the siege of the U.S. Capitol by protesters challenging the results of the presidential election. Both Sotomayor and Gorsuch warned in that talk of the risk to democracy from “domestic enemies.”

Barrett said that while she and Sotomayor indeed often disagree on many issues, they do work to persuade each other.

“I just want the audience to know, sometimes we do,” Barrett said. “Justice Sotomayor has persuaded me. We do try to work together behind the scenes, and we don’t go in and have our minds made up and locked in. … We do change our minds.”

Sotomayor called for the inclusion of media literacy as part of civic education.

“Not tech-savvy” instruction, she said. “Most young people know how to operate computers. But most people are not paying attention to becoming media literate. It is said that 73 percent of the tweets that go out are filled with fake information. And that more than half of young people admit that tweets they pass on contain falsehoods.”

“Why we are not teaching media literacy as part of civic education I don’t really understand, with those statistics,” Sotomayor added. “Our democracy won’t last unless the people who are in it respect the value that we have and understand their responsibility to maintain it.”

Barrett, who with her husband spent part of the early pandemic helping to educate their seven children with remote school, said that in addition to media literacy, schools need to stress critical thinking skills.

“That can happen outside the context of just talking about politics or media,” Barrett said. “I think when educators are teaching children about ideas, In books, [challenge] them to take apart the argument. What did you agree with? What are the weaknesses? So that they have critical thinking skills, so that then as adults they are equipped to evaluate and criticize things that they’re given. To be able decide for themselves whether it hangs together or not.”

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