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Federal Judges Help Students Learn Civility Skills

The loudest voices may prevail at a townhall meeting, at a demonstration, or in the stands at a football game, but in courtrooms, civility and rationality win the day even when the stakes – and the emotions – are high.

Illustration of Lady Justice with words Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions.

Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions is a flagship program of the federal Judiciary’s outreach to students that equips them with legal and life skills needed to settle disputes successfully in a respectful way.

It is an example of the federal courts’ civics education programs referenced recently by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. In his 2019 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, Roberts noted the important role of judges in advancing public trust and confidence in the courts.

“When judges render their judgments through written opinions that explain their reasoning, they advance public understanding of the law,” Roberts wrote. “But the Judiciary does a good deal more. … Judges from coast to coast have made their courthouses available as forums for civic education.” 

With the Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions program, simulated proceedings are conducted in courtrooms presided over by judges, and the focus is on students as jurors and judges, unlike mock trials, which give the floor only to student advocates. Volunteer attorneys coach participants through the three-hour process.

“The courts are in a unique position to model civility and rationality that young people can apply in their lives,” said District Judge Robin Rosenberg, of West Palm Beach, Florida. “This program gives students hands-on experience in practicing skills they need every day.” She and District Judge Beth Bloom, of Miami, and Magistrate Judge Shaniek Maynard, of Fort Pierce, were the first in the nation to undertake the program.

The program places high school or college students in a modified appellate court hearing or a modified trial court hearing. To get started, they watch a brief video of judges explaining the practical importance of civil discourse as legal and life skills. Mix-and-match civil discourse components are built around landmark Supreme Court cases applied to teen-relevant scenarios, such as school walkouts, cyberbullying, and vaping.

Watch students use civility skills in action during a realistic simulation of an appellate hearing.

Since 2017, more than 2,500 students have participated in 55 iterations of the program in a dozen cities from Florida to Washington, from Missouri to Maine, and from Washington, D.C. to Arizona. The initiative is on track in 2020 to reach its goal of having participation by courts in every circuit.

 “After a two-year pilot, participation is still growing,” said program originator Rebecca Fanning, the national educational outreach manager for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. “The program design and resources are packaged and posted on the web in a way that courts can ‘just add a judge and stir,’ and students need no preparation for the courtroom event.”

Chief Judge Jon Levy, of Portland, Maine, has found that an overwhelmingly positive response by volunteer attorneys makes the program easy to implement and sustain so that it can be offered on a regular basis several times a year. Courtroom programs also have been hosted in the District of Maine by District Judge Lance E. Walker, Chief Bankruptcy Judge Peter G. Cary, and Bankruptcy Judge Michael A. Fagone, who plan to have additional events in 2020.

Magistrate Judge Bruce Macdonald and his Federal Bar Association co-organizer Laura Conover, both of Tucson, Arizona, make sure that all schools and underserved populations are aware of the opportunity to come to court to participate in the program. The judge is one of many who conduct the simulation on a regularly scheduled basis.

“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,” Macdonald said. 

Another way the event strengthens students’ decision-making skills is through a reality check quiz. The quiz is a series of questions about situations in which teens can find themselves facing common dilemmas they may not realize can have legal and long-term consequences. Students take the quiz when they arrive in the courtroom and they participate in a candid conversation with the presiding judge at the close of the event.

“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.

District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe, of Philadelphia, organized the program in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for Law Day 2018 with more than 425 students at three federal courthouses in the region. 

“Response to the program from students, teachers and school administrators has been overwhelming” Rufe said. “Students are empowered to continue their discussions in positive forms, schools gain another teaching tool to inspire meaningful discussion on any scholastic topic, and administrators are turning to our courts for specific collaboration on ways to teach civics education.  

“Programs like this are a ‘win-win’ for our country,” she said.

The content of Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions meets social studies standards. The topics are timely, and the courtroom simulation requires no advance work by teachers and students. All preparation is handled during the three-hour program.

Judges, court staff, lawyers, and teachers interested in more information about the program and other civics education opportunities in federal courts can contact Rebecca Fanning at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Related Topics: Public Education