In July 2005, the American Bar Association commissioned Harris Interactive to conduct a national opinion poll regarding Americans’ knowledge of their system of government. The results, which were published in late 2005, reflected that 40 percent of the respondents could not correctly identify the three branches of government and 44 percent could not correctly identify the core functions of the judicial branch. These facts should be sobering for us all.
Our constitutional democracy is constantly under attack. Its survival depends on an informed and engaged public. We, as lawyers, have a vested interest in ensuring the success and perpetual endurance of our constitutional system of government by rule of law. As a result, fostering civic education is a professional concern of lawyers and judges.
In a democratic system such as we enjoy in America, public understanding of and confidence in the rule of law are a necessity and a core public interest. Without this understanding, the erosion of democracy will be accelerated by those that promote their own specific self-serving agenda.
Civic education refers
to the cultivation of skills and knowledge that are fundamental to
being an active and contributing member of our society. If we hope to continue
the positive evolution of our democracy, instilling a foundational
education about the history and function of our government institutions
in every citizen is an absolute necessity. Those who do not understand
our government, and more specifically our judiciary, are far less
likely to have confidence in or support the products of these institutions
than those who do. Considering this, there is little question as to
the importance of this cause.
In July the MSBA introduced some initiatives to enhance the Bar’s involvement in and support of civic education programs and public understanding of government in Minnesota. The MSBA committee, chaired by Eldon Kaul, has outlined an approach to civic education that will be impartial and apolitical. The committee is now formulating its responsibilities and expects by mid-August to have commenced work on the following activities:
Overall, the committee’s objective is to determine how the MSBA can effectively complement current civic educational programs and activities.
In the meantime, all of us should strive to do our part to foster civic education in our own communities. Whether by speaking on the separation of powers at a local school, discussing the legislative process with a local community group, or even strengthening our own knowledge of how our government functions, we can make a great deal of difference for the future of Minnesota with seemingly small efforts today. As John Dewey observed, “Democracy needs to be reborn in every generation and education is its midwife.”
The author acknowledges
with thanks the assistance of Erich Axmacher,
PATRICK J. KELLY is president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. A founding partner in the St. Paul law firm Kelly & Fawcett. P.A., he practices in areas of municipal law, labor and employment law and litigation, real estate, and administrative hearings.