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From Courtroom to Classroom: Judges Invest Themselves in Financial Literacy

Students and program volunteers following a mock bankruptcy hearing in Boston.

Students and program volunteers following a mock bankruptcy hearing at the John W. McCormack Post Office and Court House in Boston. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Joan N. Feeney (second row, right side, wearing scarf) conducts sessions for students aimed at giving them a grounding in financial literacy. 

Two times a year, Bankruptcy Judge Margaret M. Mann makes the 30-minute drive from her courtroom in San Diego to the Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility, where she provides financial guidance to women transitioning back into their communities.

Similarly, Bankruptcy Judge Joan N. Feeney recently hosted 65 high school students and volunteer lawyers at the John W. McCormack Post Office and Court House in Boston for a financial literacy session that included mock bankruptcy hearings. And Chief Bankruptcy Judge Margaret Cangilos-Ruiz is conducting money management seminars for service members, veterans, and the elderly in Syracuse, N.Y.

April is Financial Literacy Month, and bankruptcy courts across the country are doing what they can to foster greater awareness of the benefits of informed personal-finance planning and decision-making.

“There is a real need for financial literacy in the country,” Feeney said. “Many financial pitfalls can be avoided and even corrected if one has a solid understanding of financial planning, but few schools teach financial literacy skills, leaving individuals to fend for themselves.”

The Judiciary’s programs grew out of a court-based financial literacy initiative started in 2002 in Rochester, N.Y. by now-retired Bankruptcy Judge John C. Ninfo II.

Ninfo established Credit Abuse Resistance Education (CARE), a program that mobilized bankruptcy judges, trustees, and lawyers interested in teaching young people how to manage their personal finances­. The American Bankruptcy Institute later took over the program, expanding it into a national nonprofit organization that helps local CARE programs reach high schools, colleges, and community youth groups in 32 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Bankruptcy judges work with court staff and collaborate with local bar associations and nonprofit organizations to create programs tailored to help young audiences understand personal finance. Some courts are expanding their programs to include adults.

“It’s rewarding to help someone realize their situation isn’t hopeless, and that they can work through their financial troubles by using the budgeting and planning techniques we teach,” Mann said.


For two years, Mann has taught financial literacy at the annual Success Inside and Out workshop offered by the National Association of Women Judges at the Las Colinas jail in Santee, Calif. In 2017, Mann worked with other CARE volunteers to teach 100 women preparing to transition back to the community about responsible spending and how credit mistakes can be corrected and avoided. The CARE program Mann oversees also teaches financial literacy for young people in the juvenile courts and hopes to conduct workshops at a men’s prison. The judge and her staff coordinate with the national CARE organization to ensure their materials are current and include relevant and stimulating multimedia resources.


Inspired by Ninfo’s efforts, Feeney developed a novel program with the Boston Bar Association called the M. Ellen Carpenter Financial Literacy Program, which consists of three classroom lesson plans and a field trip to the bankruptcy court. The lessons cover personal finance and budgeting, credit and credit cards, and decisions involving large purchases. The program culminates with a session at the court, where students play the roles of lawyers and law clerks.

In 2017, more than 400 students participated in the program, which is offered across the state by judges and local bar associations in the bankruptcy court’s three locations in Boston, Springfield, and Worcester. Since its inception in 2005, the program has taught over 6,000 high school students.

Connecticut, New York, and Vermont

The program in the Second Circuit is a collaboration with CARE and other nonprofit organizations. Judges are working with the bankruptcy legal community to create a series of adult-focused programs. Across the circuit, judges and lawyers speak on a range of topics targeted to specific groups. 

They speak with the elderly about managing finances on a fixed income; they advise high school seniors on student loan obligations; they talk with veterans about financial challenges after military service; and they share a variety of budgeting strategies with low-income, single parents. Cangilos-Ruiz chairs the Circuit’s Adult Education/CARE subcommittee, which is part of the Second Circuit’s civics education initiative, Justice for All: Courts and the Community, established in 2014 by Chief Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Katzmann with his co-chair, District Court Judge Victor Marrero.

“It’s important that a federal court be accessible to the community,” Cangilos-Ruiz said. “Putting on these programs builds the public’s understanding of and confidence in the courts and reminds them that we’re here to help.”

Teachers interested in these and other court-conducted financial literacy initiatives should contact their local bankruptcy court to find out if it offers a program. CARE provides web resources and conducts classroom programs.

Customized Activities

A Judiciary resource gives bankruptcy judges and teachers tools for engaging young people as they experience their financial “firsts” – a first car, a first job, or a first credit card.  With four, relatable scenarios, the program provides a springboard for discussing the milestones of getting financially established in life. The materials are suitable for students in high school, college, vocational training, or their early working years.

Additional resources are available on the Financial Literacy page.

Related Topics: Public Education