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The critical need to improve civics education in securing access to justice

By Patrick M. Kelly

Patrick KellyAs you all know, we have just gone through a catastrophic court funding shortfall that has resulted in the denial of access to justice for thousands if not millions of Californians. The question is often asked "How did this happen?" There are certainly many reasons such as a sagging economy and pressure to fund what are viewed by some as more important priorities. However, I would like to point out there is an additional reason – a lack of public understanding of the need for an independent judicial branch and the critical need to effectively fund it so that it can continue to provide full and fair access to justice for our citizens. I believe a root cause of that lack of understanding is the lack of education as to how our government works and the importance of our justice system. In short, the decline in civics education and the consequent decline in understanding of our government is the crux of the failure to properly prioritize and thus fund our justice system.

As to evidence of the lack of understanding of our government, you don't have to take my word for it. On the last nationwide civics assessment in 2010, more than two-thirds of students scored below proficiency. Moreover, according to the 2010 Civic Report Card released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 22 percent of eighth-graders could recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court. And as pointed out by Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, "On the last national measure of K-12 school student civic knowledge, barely a third of students could name the three branches of government, and an equal number could not even name one." Perhaps even more shocking, she said, is that fewer than 20 percent of eighth-graders know why the Declaration of Independence was written.

With such a gap in civic understanding, is it any wonder that a significant number of our citizens lack the basic understanding of government necessary to assert their constitutional rights? They often do not understand the importance of our third branch of government – and the need to preserve it – unless they are involved in criminal or civil litigation. That speaks very poorly for our civics learning in California and in part explains why our courts have not been accorded the priority they deserve. So how do we help fix this problem?

In California, required civics education is generally limited to requiring students to take an American government course in the 12th grade. Not only does that defer the very necessary civics knowledge that should impact student learning throughout their entire education, it leaves students that drop out of school before the 12th grade with no civics education whatsoever. As Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye has so aptly put it, that requirement is simply “too little and too late.”

As lawyers we have an important interest in not only serving the community, but also in preserving access to justice, which can only be secured through an understanding of our government and the critical role our justice system plays in preserving the rights of our citizens. Thus I could not agree more with the chief justice's concern, and that is also why I feel privileged to serve on the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning. That task force is a joint creation of the chief justice and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. Co-chaired by Justice Judith McConnell of the 4th District Court of Appeal and Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon, it is charged with the 12-month mission of creating a blueprint to address the improvement of civics education in California by exploring four key areas for school communities and students: curriculum; instructional practices and resources; professional learning; community and business partnerships; and student assessment and school accountability.

Of the three branches of government, the judicial branch is often the least understood. Without the basic foundation of civics education, how can we expect our citizens to become knowledgeable and involved? And how can we expect them to understand the importance of the courts in their lives and the lives of other citizens? As officers of the court, we thus need to be meaningfully engaged in the effort to improve civics education in California.

Patrick M. Kelly is the immediate past president of the State Bar of California and western region managing partner at the law firm of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker in Los Angeles.