Opinion: More perfect union needs civics education

Education about our judicial system is crucial to the system working for the people of this country.
The Nathan Deal Judicial Center, which houses the Georgia Supreme Court. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

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The Nathan Deal Judicial Center, which houses the Georgia Supreme Court. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

On Friday, Sept. 17, for one hour, judges from all classes of court across our state will reverse roles and be the ones to answer — rather than ask — questions.

During this time, judges from Municipal Court up to the Georgia Supreme Court will be taking questions from Georgia’s schoolchildren live on Twitter. Our hope is that by providing authentic, firsthand responses, we will help educate the next generation of citizens about the role and function of courts in our government.

The Twitter Town Hall, hosted by the Judicial Council/Administrative Office of the Courts, is part of a series of events aimed at boosting civic education, especially about the judiciary. The timing of this event also honors and celebrates Constitution Day.

Education about our judicial system is crucial to the system working for the people of this country.

U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts said it well when he issued his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary in 2019, commenting on civics education. “We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”

My Court agrees. As members and leaders of Georgia’s Judicial Branch, we deeply value civics education. And it’s much needed.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Sadly, while the United States of America celebrated its 245th birthday this past Fourth of July, only one in three Americans can even name all three branches of government. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited that statistic in an April 14, 2021 webinar, “Civics as a National Security Imperative: A Conversation with U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil M. Gorsuch.”

While our Twitter Town Hall is a small effort, we hope it engages children and the public, making them curious to learn more about our government.

We’re working with the Georgia Department of Education and social studies teachers to get students to submit questions in advance on video about the Constitution or about the judicial branch in general.

We are inspired to celebrate our Constitution when we read Ben Franklin’s speech in which he urged his fellow delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to sign the historic document, saying, “Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.”

Our new nation had rejected monarchy in the Revolution, and the delegates had carefully studied other forms of government in developing a new form of self-government that has endured for almost two-and-a-half centuries.

The original Constitution was far from perfect, but it also provided for amendments to address its flaws as they became understood. Americans almost immediately worked to improve the Constitution by adding the Bill of Rights. The enslavement the original Constitution allowed ultimately led to the Civil War, which was followed by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, substantial changes that moved us closer to a more perfect union. More amendments have followed as we adapt our Constitution to a changing society.

In order to continue this path, the next generation must understand the amazing power of being a citizen asking for change in the United States.

During the April 14 webinar, Justice Gorsuch told the story of Gregory Watson, a 19-year-old sophomore who wrote a college paper in 1982 about a proposed constitutional amendment written by James Madison that never made it into the Bill of Rights.

In his paper, Watson argued the amendment should still be ratified. But after his paper received a “C” grade, Watson was so disappointed, it galvanized him to write to state legislators across the United States to lobby for the ratification of Madison’s Amendment, Justice Gorsuch explained. In 1992, the Madison Amendment became the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Justice Gorsuch said he wants young people to “understand … they can be part of a system to make change.”

So do we. We urge students and the public to join us for one hour on Sept. 17, from noon to 1 p.m., to learn more about our Constitution. You can join us by following @GACourts or use the hashtag #AskGAJudges to ask a question.

Chief Justice David E. Nahmias was appointed to the Supreme Court of Georgia in August 2009 by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. In July 2021, he became the Chief Justice of the state’s highest court. Justices Charles J. Bethel (@CharlieBethel) and Carla Wong McMillian (@JudgeCarla) will participate in the Twitter Town Hall live on Sept. 17.

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