Social Studies

Supreme Court Justices Call for More Civics Education Amid Risk From ‘Domestic Enemies’

By Mark Walsh — April 14, 2021 3 min read
Image of people at voting booths.

Two U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday renewed their calls for improving civics education, saying the future of the republic depends on it.

“Our democracy is at risk not only from foreign but from domestic enemies,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said during an online discussion sponsored by several groups.

“Democracies crumble from within,” said Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. “They crumble. And there becomes a hunger for a certain faction to take over because they’re intolerant of others. They think they know the right answer and others do not.”

Sotomayor was nominated by President Barack Obama and is considered among the more liberal members of the court, while Gorsuch was nominated by President Donald Trump and is conservative on many issues. But both have worked on civics education initiatives since they joined the high court, and they have spoken jointly on the topic at least once before.

But Wednesday’s online session was the first since the contentious 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol. The justices did not discuss those events in detail but they referred more than once to the deep political divisions in the country.

“We had one of the highest turnouts in voting in the last election,” said Sotomayor. “Yet, at the same time, we see some of the cracks in our system. We have a great deal of partisan, very heated debate going on. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can turn into an awful thing, into something that destroys the fabric of our community if we don’t learn how to talk to each other, how to discuss things with each other, and how to change things in a positive rather than a negative way.”

Gorsuch said he was more concerned about “internal” threats to democracy than any from “foreign enemies.”

“If we don’t tend to the garden of democracy and the conditions that make it ripe, it’s not an automatic thing” that it will survive, he said. “And our enemies know this even if we don’t. It is no surprise that a lot of the false misinformation spread on social media is deliberately spread by our enemies to sow disagreement internally in the country.”

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10 Citizen Z Illustration
Stephanie Shafer for Education Week

Both justices are involved with civics education groups

The session was recorded earlier and was sponsored by the Center for Strategic & International Studies and the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin School Law School.

Both Sotomayor and Gorsuch are actively involved in civics education programs.

Sotomayor is a board member and champion of iCivics, the educational game and curriculum content organization founded by retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The organization also has a project called CivXNow, which is a coalition of groups pushing to improve the nation through civics.

Sotomayor said Wednesday that STEM education receives about $50 per pupil in federal funding each year, while civics education gets just 5 cents per student.

“The disparity given how little our children know about civics should be a point of concern for everyone,” she said. “Right now we fall very short of what we need to do.”

Gorsuch in 2017 stepped into the shoes of now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy at an event about civics education when Kennedy could not appear. Since then, Gorsuch has taken on roles promoting civics education with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has also lent his voice to the topic, using his 2019 year-end report on the federal judiciary to warn that “civic education has fallen by the wayside.”

Gorsuch said Wednesday that more federal judges around the country have been getting involved with civics by sponsoring programs and organizing mock trials at schools.

“They have to do something because the teachers, the schools—it’s just not happening the way it used to,” he said.

Sotomayor said civics education is about “engaging people in being active participants in change, with knowledge and with passion, without hatred. And I say that because too much of that conversation in our nation is centered on the negative and too little on the positive of what we share in common.”

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