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2nd Circuit Mounts Effort to Build Civics Awareness

Chief Judge Robert Katzmann talks to students.

2nd Circuit Chief Judge Robert Katzmann talks to students.

For years, polls have shown widespread ignorance of how government works, with courts and the Constitution faring especially poorly in the public consciousness. But federal courts throughout the Second Circuit, which includes New York, Connecticut and Vermont, have launched an ambitious program to change that.

In just two years, the Justice for All: Courts and the Community Project has gone far beyond traditional outreach tools, such as periodic courthouse visits for students and community talks by judges. The Courts throughout the circuit are reaching students through a summer camp on the law, judges’ input in structuring court-relevant public school curriculum, participation in mock trials, observation of real legal proceedings, and a new civics education website aimed at teachers, students and the public.

“Students who learn about and appreciate the Constitution and courts grow up to be adults who respect and support them,” said Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who launched the initiative and formed a circuit-wide committee. “Understanding our system of constitutional liberty keeps our democracy strong and safeguards the rights of all Americans.”

Under the leadership of the circuit’s Committee on Civic Education, every court in the Second Circuit is participating in Justice for All, and district, magistrate and bankruptcy judges are stepping outside the courtroom to serve as public educators.

Katzmann underscored the critical role of his committee co-chair S.D.N.Y. Judge Victor Marrero, and of the entire committee of judges, lawyers, educators and court staff. Law schools, bar associations and the nonprofit Justice Resource Center have helped formulate the program. AO National Outreach Manager for the Federal Courts, Rebecca Fanning, and Russell Wheeler of the Governance Institute and the Brookings Institution have also played essential roles, Katzmann said. 

The initiative has nine distinct areas of activity:  curriculum in schools and civics programs; advocacy skills training; learning centers; reenactments of historic cases; student contests; civic ceremonies; speakers bureau; adult education; and media and public outreach on behalf of civics education.

The Justice for All website, formally unveiled in January, contains interactive resources for teachers and students, as well as a private-access section for federal judges. Specific programs include:

  • Public school curriculum. Working with the Justice Resource Center, the New York City Department of Education and area law schools, Justice for All has developed a multi-year curriculum for law-focused school programs, including classes on criminal justice and constitutional law.
  • Advocacy skills training. In association with the Touro Law Center and the Federal Bar Association, the Eastern District of New York established an annual, weeklong Justice Institute, in which students participate in the criminal justice system and are exposed to law-related careers and life the law school experience.  That program is featured in this video. Mock trial programs are being expanded throughout the circuit.
  • Historic case reenactments. The site provides scripted reenactment resources for six historic cases, and lessons that can be used in courtrooms  and classrooms. Cases include the Amistad,  about the rebellion of African slaves on a schooner that docked in Connecticut; the murder trial of Old West lawman Wyatt Earp; and the conviction of women’s suffrage heroine Susan B. Anthony for voting illegally in 1872, nearly 50 years before women won the right to vote.
  • Financial literacy. With the participation of bankruptcy judges, Justice for All is developing and expanding financial literacy programs for adult and student audiences.
  • Courthouse visits. Courthouses are opening themselves for public tours, lectures and other events. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals invites students in monthly to hear oral arguments.
  • Speakers’ bureau. The circuit will coordinate speaking events for judges, professors and lawyers, at schools and community organizations, to educate adult and youth audiences about the work of the courts, Constitutional rights, careers in the law, and the jury system.

Within other circuits, significant education programs also have been underway, such as in the Ninth, Eighth, Third and First circuits.

Katzmann said the Justice for All program will continue to expand, to include student essay contests and other educational initiatives.  Now under development is a learning center for student and adult visitors at the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in Manhattan. Other courts in the Second Circuit are seeking to replicate early Justice for All programs, and he invites federal courts elsewhere to take advantage of the same models and resources to address a public need that exists everywhere.

“Federal courthouses, where citizens go to enforce their rights, belong to the people, and are locations that should welcome visitors,” Katzmann said. “The purpose is not to put the courts on a pedestal, but to foster awareness about the administration of justice. We have a collective responsibility to promote civic education, so that our Constitution and government remain vital for generations to come.”

Related Topics: Public Education