Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : December 2006

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"Separation of Powers" Kicks Off in Harford County

~New joint bench/bar program stresses need for independent judiciary to state's youth, teachers~

On November 6, Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA) president Edward J. Gillis unveiled MSBA's newest program, "Separation of Powers: The Critical Role of an Independent Judiciary," at the High School Staff Development Conference held at the Clarion Hotel in Aberdeen, Maryland. The educational program is a joint venture with the Maryland Judiciary and Citizenship Law-Related Education Program (CLREP) and is aimed at stressing to young students, as well as their teachers, the integral role the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers plays in our system of government.

The need for the program came as the issue of roles and power within the government has been a hot topic of late.

"I think there has been a growing concern about the whole issue of separation of powers," says CLREP Executive Director Rick Miller. "On the state level, we had the Public Service Commission (PSC) case that went to the court of appeals. On the federal level, we have the whole issue of warrant-less searches [and] who has the right to make war… all of those issues are sort of bubbling up nationally."

Gilliss opened the conference with a speech in which he read the alarming results of a recent survey, leaving many of the attending Harford County Social Studies teachers speechless.

"Three out of four Americans can identify two of Snow White's seven dwarfs – only one out of four can name two United States Supreme Court Justices," Gilliss recited. "Seventy-four percent of Americans can identify all three of The Three Stooges, but only 42 percent can identify the three branches of government."

This bench/bar project hopes to combat these statistics by increasing the children's exposure to the judicial process, thus allowing them ample time to develop a logical perception of our government's system and the intricacies that provide for checks and balances.

"The foundation of our democratic society is the rule of law," Chief Judge Ben Clyburn, District Court of Maryland, told the conference during his presentation on the Maryland Judicial System. "And the rule of law will only survive when you have a strong independent judiciary. You want an independent judiciary simply because you want to have checks and balances. The nature of humans is that when power is concentrated in an area, there is going to be abuse, and the foundation of this democratic government is to have checks and balances so that you don't have one branch of government with too much power."

In order to provide an optimal learning atmosphere for the students, the program veers away from the typical Schoolhouse Rock videotapes, instead employing a personal-interactive teaching strategy.

"The idea is to get kids and teachers who know little about the Maryland Court System interacting with actual judges and attorneys," Miller explains. "Our goal is to heighten awareness and understanding of the importance of an independent judiciary. [Most students] have almost no information on Maryland specific courts or precedent setting cases or why an independent judiciary is so critical."

Students will be given the opportunity to view an actual court proceeding and visit with volunteer judges in their chambers, as well as having volunteer attorneys and judges visit them in their classrooms to discuss the judicial process in greater detail. The curriculum has also been overhauled by CLREP under this new program, which Miller believes can have an impact for years to come. Newly-developed materials and lesson plans borrowed from the American Bar Association's "Separation of Powers" program, have been edited and distributed to teachers and school systems throughout the state. A notable facet added to the curriculum is the Maryland-specific moot-court case activity featuring the 2006 case involving the Public Service Commission. Cited as the "perfect example of separation of powers" by Miller, the activity simply explores those issues in the case, including how the legislature resolved to terminate executive-appointed commissioners, resulting in the conflict's being sent to the judiciary for resolution. The exercise further stresses the importance of having an independent judiciary.

"Judges must be independent and impartial because, under the three branches of government, the only real power that the judiciary has is the respect of the people," noted Clyburn. "When the judiciary loses that respect – when we are not accountable to [the people], when we are not fair and impartial – we lose our source of power."

Training workshops have also been established by the program to provide teachers with the proper techniques and acuteness necessary to convey the information. While many workshops (including the conference held for Harford County teachers at the kick-off ceremony) have proven successful in a localized format, a statewide conference is tentatively being scheduled for the end of March or beginning of May 2007.

"We are getting a phenomenal response from teachers and social studies supervisors across the state for the materials," notes Miller. "When they see the materials they want more for their teachers."

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: December 2006

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