Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : February 2007

|

Lawyers Volunteer to Advance Civics Literacy in Maryland Schools

~Teams of lawyers and judges visit schools across the state, address importance of judicial independence~

Over 40 MSBA members have volunteered to go out into their communities to visit local schools and give young people a civics lesson with emphasis on the importance of judicial independence. As part of MSBA's joint initiative with Maryland's Judiciary, lawyers and judges are teaming up to go into classrooms and talk about the fundamentals of our government and our democracy so students can understand this country's justice system and the true significance of our separation of powers doctrine. MSBA has created a special "Separation of Powers" category in its popular Speakers' Bureau to accommodate this cadre of volunteer lawyers.

With these newest volunteer attorneys, MSBA's Speakers' Bureau now offers roughly 300 attorneys who visit schools, senior centers, youth groups, community events and other citizen gatherings to talk about various aspects of the law. MSBA's Speakers' Bureau is one of the Association's most popular public service programs. Through the Bureau, community organizations request a volunteer attorney speaker in their local area and select one of the Bureau's 41 legal topics for the attorney to address. Bureau volunteers often visit local schools, and now, with this new Bar/Bench initiative, they will talk about the "Separation of Powers" doctrine and basic civics – something that seems to be disappearing from school curriculum.

Recently, Congress and a number of national groups, like the ABA, initiated a national push to re-invigorate civic literacy and address the fact that civics education is being pushed out of this country's schools. According to the National Assessment for Education Progress, only 25 percent of this nation's students receive an adequate civics education. There is a dearth of civics education in schools, so today's students – our future leaders – may never fully understand or value our democracy and remain unaware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

Across the nation, social studies material is being dropped from elementary and middle school curriculum because teachers must concentrate on reading and math skills. This trend is occurring in Maryland, too. MSBA's Citizenship Law-Related Education Program Committee (CLREP) Executive Director Ellery "Rick" Miller explains, "The challenge for teachers in Maryland is the school system's focus on ‘No Child Left Behind Testing Mandates', which concentrates on math and reading. These tests drive what is taught, so there is little time or room for civics education as Maryland's teachers struggle to fit things like civics into their already crowded curriculum schedule."

To enhance civic education, MSBA and Maryland's Judiciary have forged a partnership in which lawyers and judges volunteer their time to visit classrooms across the state, offering young people insight into the rudiments of our government. Last fall, MSBA President Edward J. Gilliss and Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Court of Appeals of Maryland, announced the creation of this innovative joint Bar/Bench school project in which lawyers and judges visit schools across the state and candidly talk about the law and the structure of our democracy and explain the importance of an independent judiciary.

"Our society is dependent on respect for the Rule of Law," asserts Gilliss. "We cannot underestimate the importance of the message we intend to deliver through the Separation of Powers project. An impartial judiciary is an essential element of a properly functioning democracy. We must do all that we can to ensure the health of our system for future generations."

"With our Bar/Bench project, we have created an effective platform to re-introduce into our schools the study of our three co-equal branches of government," states Gilliss. "Our project is very important and very timely. Its importance is confirmed by the reception the project has received from educators and by the strong show of support from our membership in volunteering to participate in the classroom component."

The teams of lawyers and judges also address the philosophy behind separate powers and demonstrate how this doctrine has successfully functioned as a critical part of our Constitution for more than two centuries. They are citing recent legal cases to underscore this doctrine and explain the significance in the context of our contemporary times.

In addition to the school visits, the Bar and the Bench have also developed materials and lesson plans and conducted teacher training sessions to help educate students about our democracy. CLREP is coordinating the Bench and Bar's "Separation of Powers – the Critical Role of an Independent Judiciary in Sustaining Our Democracy" project. Its three-pronged educational approach includes: (1) teacher-training workshops and a statewide conference; (2) the development of hands-on materials, including lesson plans, in a print and electronic curriculum format; and (3) student sessions featuring teams of lawyers and judges in the classrooms.

The teacher trainings, which began last fall, will continue throughout this year. This Bar/Bench program kicked off last November, when a "Harford County's high school social science department held a program based upon our Separation of Powers materials, where Ben Clyburn, Chief Judge of Maryland's District Court, addressed the assemblage," reports Gilliss. All school superintendents in the state, as well as social studies teachers and social studies coordinators, have been contacted to announce this teacher training opportunity and the availability of volunteer lawyer and judge teams for classroom visits.

Curriculum development is currently underway and CLREP has already prepared and distributed a primer for all schools on the roles of each of our three branches of government and the importance of separation of powers. Materials will soon be available electronically on MSBA's website (www.msba.org), CLREP's website (www.clrep.org), and the Maryland Judiciary's website (www.courts.state.md.us). "There has been great interest and enthusiasm for these materials, our in-service teacher training and the entire program," reports Miller. "Many teachers have already expressed a desire to have a judge and attorney visit their classroom."

This joint venture will culminate with MSBA's Law Day celebration on May15, 2007, when the Association's Public Awareness Committee, in conjunction with CLREP, presents a special student/teacher/lawyer conference at the Shepard Pratt Conference Center, where participants explore the many facets of the separation of powers doctrine.

"When you train teachers, the impact will last for years," asserts Miller. "Each secondary teacher impacts roughly 150 students each year. While the teams of lawyers and judges in the classrooms have great impact on students at that moment, the long-range impact is increasing the understanding and knowledge of teachers about the separation of powers and the critical role of our independent judiciary."

"Clearly those individuals who are most concerned with the education of our young people are becoming aware of the value of this resource for Maryland's teachers and students," declares Chief Judge Bell. "When I heard Dr. Nancy Grasmick's remarks at the Civic Literacy Summit, I was pleased that she publicly recognized Rick Miller and commended him for his work on the Separation of Powers project. Awareness of the separation of powers is essential in advancing public support for judicial independence."

"MSBA and Maryland's Judiciary should be proud of our Separation of Powers project," asserts Gilliss. "It is a visible and substantive tool to teach the roles of each of our three government branches and, more importantly, explain the work of lawyers and judges and the vital importance of an impartial judicial branch."

Attorneys interested in volunteering to team up with a judge and visit local schools should contact Jason Zeisloft at jzeisloft@msba.org or (410) 685-7878, ext. 3028.

previous next
Publications : Bar Bulletin: February 2007