The Florida Bar
www.floridabar.org
The Florida Bar Journal
May, 2016 Volume 90, No. 5
A Vision of Justice

by Justice R. Fred Lewis

Page 28



Come Share with Me Your Vision of Justice.” Those were the words inscribed at the entrance to the courtroom of the Florida Supreme Court as I assumed the role of chief justice in 2006. I had observed the “Vision of Justice” of many Floridians as I commenced visiting approximately three public schools each month in 1999 to discuss the concept of fundamental liberties with our students. From those visits, however, it became readily apparent that our students demonstrated a concerning lack of civic competence, although it was not at all attributed to a lack of interest or effort on the part of our students, teachers, and schools.

The truth is found in understanding that a democracy is not hereditary. Rather, it must be crafted for, and imparted to, each generation. History has revealed that without nurturing and protection, a democratic republic will not survive. The preservation of a democratic way of life can be accomplished only through knowledge, and knowledge cannot be achieved without education. A citizenry that understands the value of a democracy will be the force that determines the future of our nation, not the demagogues who appeal to the popular desires and prejudices of the moment. With these tenets in mind, and with a desire to guard the constitutional liberties fought for so vigorously by our founding fathers, I realized that our students required and deserved civic education conveyed through relatable, real-life examples. From such examples, students would learn about the concepts of ordered democracy and understand that this constitutional republic, of which we are all a part, remains alive and has a true impact on them and others.

It also became apparent to me that our youth deserved the maximum assistance that we, as members of the noble profession of the law, could provide in teaching them about the rule of law, the interaction of the three branches of government, and the role these branches occupy in our constitutional democracy. Although I was admittedly uncertain of the extent to which members of The Florida Bar would be willing to visit schools on a continuing basis, I believed there were many wonderful judges and attorneys who, once engaged in the edifying experience of bringing civic education to life for Florida students, would readily accept the challenge.

The Birth of Justice Teaching
Based upon these thoughts and my prior experiences in the schools, when I became chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court in 2006, I brought my vision of justice to life and created Justice Teaching, an initiative that would place a judge or attorney volunteer with every public school in Florida. To that end, I appointed the Select Committee on Justice Teaching. The select committee was composed of judges from each of the 20 judicial circuits, as well as respected members of the educational community and The Florida Bar. These dedicated members, who shared my vision, worked to increase awareness about Justice Teaching within legal and educational communities at the local level. Soon after the creation of Justice Teaching, hundreds of schools were paired with a volunteer. By 2008, we had covered every public school in Florida with very few exceptions, and the response to Justice Teaching was so positive that we expanded the initiative to private schools.

Justice Teaching has now been in existence for nine years, heading for our 10th anniversary next July. Our success is reflected in the thousands upon thousands of students who have participated in these hands-on programs and better understand our governmental structure, why our nation exists, how it was formed, and the functions of the three branches of government that were designated by our forefathers so our country would have ordered liberty. It is my hope that the reach of Justice Teaching will continue to fulfill the highest goal for our nation, which is to have a well-informed citizenry that can operate and maintain the government structure that has been established for the past 230 years, and also possesses a full and healthy recognition of the individual liberties that date as far back as Magna Carta.

The Paramount Importance of Nonpartisanship
When the structure for Justice Teaching was developed, we were careful to ensure that the sessions would not constitute lectures or attorneys visiting classrooms to tell war stories or express personal views on controversial topics. Instead, the program offered activities that were designed to assist attorneys and judges to encourage students to think critically as well as facilitate constructive, interactive, and civil discussions on a range of relevant topics. We recognized that students were capable of tackling complex problems and issues given the appropriate setting and tools. This became a critical component of our training. If given the opportunity, students could comprehend and appreciate concepts that relate to our constitutional liberties and civic responsibilities.

Justice Teaching exemplifies a nonpartisan, law-focused approach to civic education. A wide variety of interactive lessons exist for elementary through high school classrooms. One of the most popular activities uses an engaging, interactive scenario addressing the Bill of Rights. Students reflect on the constitutional rights we have in this country and later evaluate the Bill of Rights to determine which ones they feel are most important. In small groups, the students discuss their answers and try to come to a consensus as a group. Each group reports on their five most important rights in this country, and a very interesting conclusion usually occurs. Students determine ultimately that they do not want to give up any of their rights because they are all important and closely related. After the exercise, the Justice Teaching volunteer initiates a discussion that ultimately demonstrates how each of these constitutional rights are inextricably intertwined with the others, and if Americans relinquish one or more of their fundamental rights, it could impact other rights. The message that students have taken from this activity is that all of our constitutional rights are precious, and none should ever be taken for granted. We must learn about our rights in order to protect them.

Justice Teaching volunteers are trained to recognize the critical importance of presenting sessions in a nonpartisan, objective manner. The sessions are designed to prepare students to think through complex scenarios using critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. As a result, students have an opportunity to explore constitutional issues in an open, neutral environment as they reflect upon the issues that impact their lives.

The Impact of Justice Teaching
There are currently over 3,100 public and private Florida schools with designated Justice Teaching volunteers. Over 4,000 attorneys and judges have been enlisted as volunteers to visit elementary, middle, and high school classrooms in Florida. Some schools have multiple volunteers assigned to accommodate multiple grade levels or classes. Volunteers work directly with teachers to determine which activities to present, and the frequency and length of time of the visits.

The impact continues to grow in the number of schools and students reached as well as the increase in the program’s volunteer base. Testimonials have also provided qualitative documentation of the program’s impact. Feedback received from principals, teachers, volunteers, parents, school superintendents, legislators, and even judges from other states has been overwhelmingly positive. Such concrete feedback demonstrates the substantive impact of the program as well as the relationships formed between the education and legal communities. One teacher stated:

When the Justice Teaching volunteer was done, my students knew about their rights, and they could tell you all about their government and their Constitution. The program was a huge success!

You have melded two worlds that would never have come together (adult lawyers and third grade students) and formed an educational opportunity that has truly benefitted education: not by fixing it (small secret…it was never broken), but by supplementing and empowering education to bring more to our students. My students learned civics from a real world source, from someone with first-hand knowledge. This breathed life into the information like nothing else could have.

The Expansion and Recognition of Justice Teaching
It is with great pride that the reach of Justice Teaching is no longer limited to Florida, but has now been recognized on a national level. The success of the initiative has led the judicial branches and bar associations of other states to take notice of what we have accomplished in Florida. The Justice Teaching model has been presented in Arkansas, California, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma. In 2012, the president of the Oklahoma Bar Association and the chairs of the Oklahoma Law-Related Education Committee decided to implement an education initiative that is partnered with and patterned after Justice Teaching. The president of the Oklahoma Bar Association stated that the students of her state deserved an opportunity to understand their rights and responsibilities as American citizens. She also described Justice Teaching as an “excellent resource” that informs students about their civic duties while complying with state educational requirements.

Further, in 2014, the work of Justice Teaching was recognized with the National Center for State Courts’ Sandra Day O’Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education. The award honors an organization, court, or individual that has promoted, inspired, improved, or led an innovation in civic education related to the judicial system. With this award, the achievements of Justice Teaching have been brought into the national spotlight.

Are You the Next Justice Teaching Volunteer?
Our contemporaries have described Justice Teaching as a rejuvenating experience that has invested them with new pride as members of the legal profession. They find the enthusiasm and passion of the students to be both exhilarating and uplifting. Essentially, once a volunteer visits the classroom and sees the eyes of the students illuminate as they comprehend concepts that address our fundamental constitutional liberties, the volunteer is “hooked” and looks forward to the next opportunity to bring civic education to life for our youth who constitute the next generation of Floridians.

As with any thriving organization, the lifeblood of Justice Teaching is in its membership. We always need good individuals with fresh energy to continue and enhance our work. If you would like to become part of the 4,000-strong Justice Teaching team, minimal time is required. All that is necessary is to register as a volunteer on the Justice Teaching website and complete a training session, which may be accomplished by watching a DVD. The DVD includes demonstrations of a number of the approved lesson plans/activities and also addresses issues that may arise during a Justice Teaching visit. Copies of the DVD are available for viewing in all 20 judicial circuits. Further, a member of the Select Committee on Justice Teaching is available in each circuit to answer volunteers’ questions about Justice Teaching or to facilitate communication between volunteers and their assigned schools.

All approved Justice Teaching lessons provide step-by-step instructions for the volunteer, and many provide handouts for the students as well as PowerPoint presentations. Thus, there is very little preparation time involved for the judge or attorney volunteer—something that I took into careful consideration when I created Justice Teaching because I understand the busy schedules of members of the legal community. The time commitment for a Justice Teaching volunteer is minimal. We ask that our volunteers agree to visit their assigned schools once per month. We recognize that during certain times of the year, a monthly visit may not be feasible for the school because of testing; however, the most important thing for the teachers to understand is that they have a Justice Teaching volunteer who is ready to offer a session when the school is able to accommodate a visit.

Conclusion
In 1999, a vision of justice formed in my mind, a vision in which the children of Florida would learn from members of the legal community how fortunate we are to have the civil liberties that are guaranteed under the United States and Florida constitutions. Sixteen years later, that vision has become a reality for thousands of Justice Teaching volunteers and tens of thousands of Florida children. It is now my vision that the good work of Justice Teaching continues to strengthen and remain a presence in our schools. If you share this vision, I welcome you and ask you to become a part of Justice Teaching. In exchange, you will receive the gratification of knowing that you have made a difference in the lives of our children by educating them toward becoming civic-minded adults. To learn more about Justice Teaching or to join our team, visit www.justiceteaching.org.


Justice R. Fred Lewis was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court in December 1998 and has visited schools regularly throughout his career on the bench. While serving as chief justice, he founded Justice Teaching, creating partnerships with the education, legal, and judicial communities in Florida. In 2014, Justice Lewis received the prestigious Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Advancements in Civic Education.

[Revised: 05-03-2016]