Federal courts are approaching the 2020-2021 academic year with an endorsement of volunteer civics education efforts by judges and a willingness to support teachers in bringing the human face of the Judiciary into their civics and government classes, whether students are at home or in school.
In a new 26-page report, a Second Circuit committee, under the leadership of Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann, summarized observations and insights gained at the Oct. 31, 2019, National Conference on Civic Education and the Federal Courts. The conference heightened awareness of the Judiciary’s existing programs in courtrooms and classrooms and created momentum to develop additional initiatives to extend the courts’ outreach.
The first-ever conference was convened jointly by the Second Circuit’s Justice for All Committee, chaired by Katzmann and co-chaired by U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero, with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO), under the leadership of James C. Duff. The Federal Judicial Center, headed by John S. Cooke, provided professional consultation and facilitation services.
The Report on the National Conference on Civic Education and the Federal Courts was prepared under the auspices of the Second Circuit’s Justice For All: Courts and the Community civic education initiative. The report is enhanced by two videos produced by the Second Circuit’s Justice For All Initiative. One focuses on the national conference, and the other, introduced by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, features the Learning Center in the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse.
The report sheds light on a wide range of the federal Judiciary’s educational outreach efforts. The programs are aligned with social studies standards and bring attention to the everyday impact of the courts and the Constitution on the lives of students, teachers, parents and the broader public. Learning experiences include live reenactments of historical cases in a variety of venues, teen-relevant simulations in courtrooms, and after-school scout merit badge programs with judges in their courtrooms.
The conference brought together 138 federal judges, including three associate justices serving on the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as Judiciary employees, representatives of civics education organizations, bar association leaders, law school deans, and academics from Maine to Guam. They shared best practices, innovative programs, and timely, ready-to-go resources designed to enhance the nation’s understanding of and confidence in the federal courts.
“The conference was a moment of critical mass in which leaders in federal courts and in the civics education realm realized the scope and professionalism of the Judiciary’s existing programs and resources and recognized the potential for continued growth and success,” said Katzmann, who initiated the conference as a way to heighten collaboration among courts involved in civics education.
Along with the AO and the Second Circuit’s Justice For All: Courts and the Community program, the conference was sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the Leon Levy Foundation.
In the months since the conference, two significant developments have helped advance the conference’s objectives.
On Dec. 31, 2019, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., issued his 2019 Year-End Report on the Judiciary in which he stated that “civic education, like all education, is a continuing enterprise and conversation.” Roberts added, “By virtue of their judicial responsibilities, judges are necessarily engaged in civics education.”
On March 17, 2020, the Judicial Conference of the United States affirmed that civics education is an important component of judicial service. It endorsed regularly scheduled conferences to share and promote best practices in civics education, and it encouraged circuits to coordinate and promote civics programs.
Courts are continuing to adapt to the distance-learning environment with web resources and the availability of judges willing to participate in virtual classes offered by schools. Virtual activities, presented in different formats and time lengths, address the impact on teens of the rule of law, separation of powers, judicial independence, and jury service by relating these concepts to their daily lives. Civil discourse and smart decision-making are emphasized in all programs.