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Students Learn Civil Discourse Skills in Federal Courts

In an effort to bolster civil discourse and good decision-making in the next generation of jurors and engaged citizens, federal judges are hosting high school and college students in their courtrooms to observe, learn, and practice critical life skills.

“Young people are faced every day with controversies that strain the bounds of civility and situations that tax their decision-making abilities,” said U.S. District Court Judge Robin L. Rosenberg, of West Palm Beach, Florida. She and U.S. District Court Judge Beth Bloom, of Miami, were the first to conduct the Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions program that is being launched as a national initiative in federal courts.

“The courts are in a unique position to model civility and rationality that young people can apply in their lives,” Rosenberg said. “This program gives students hands-on experience in practicing skills they need every day.”

The three-hour courtroom event opens with an attention-getting, reality check quiz on the students’ knowledge of the legal consequences that everyday decisions can trigger. It closes with the presiding judge facilitating a candid conversation about choices and consequences.

“The discussion of these relatable scenarios gives students tools for making decisions with greater awareness of possible legal ramifications,” said Bloom, who wants students to learn how to avoid the impulsive or uninformed decisions that can bring them into court.

During the courtroom event, oral arguments are made by student attorneys, who are guided by volunteer lawyers and questioned from the bench by the presiding judge. Unlike a mock trial, the centerpiece of this experience is lively jury deliberations that take over the courtroom.  

All of the young participants, except the eight student attorneys, are jurors. They start the deliberations by sitting in the gallery behind the party whose arguments they initially favor. As jurors express their opinions, their peers in the jury move from one side of the courtroom to the other to indicate changes in their initial impressions of the case.

“The students are fully engaged as they make passionate arguments using the civil discourse skills we teach and the ground rules they set for themselves,” said U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce G. Macdonald, who piloted the program in Tucson, Arizona with the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association (FBA). 

The response from academia has been strong in every community where the program has been conducted. In Tucson, demand has grown quickly and the judge plans to host an event in his courtroom twice a semester.

In the first six months of the Florida pilot, with critical assistance from local FBA chapters, the program reached more than 500 high school and college students in Fort Pierce, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. The calendar continues to fill up weeks in advance for the program which, in Florida, is called Teen Discourse and Decisions – TD-Squared (TD2).

The program's flexible agenda can be adapted to meet the needs and interests of courts and their communities. For Law Day in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, for example, U.S. District Court Judge Cynthia M. Rufe, of Philadelphia, has organized 15 judges and 75 attorney volunteers to conduct the event in 12 courtrooms at three courthouses in the region. They will reach more than 425 students, teachers, and administrators from 18 schools in one day.

“This particular program contains relevant legal issues that affect our society and youth today,” Rufe said. “It also incorporates, into this interesting civics education modality, a much-needed lesson on civil discourse and decision-making. The response to the program has been overwhelming.”

Related Topics: Public Education