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March 1, 2014
Benchmarks aims to brighten citizens’ civics IQs

By Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor

“Write every other word in the first line and print every third word in the same line, but capitalize the fifth word that you write.”

“Spell backwards, forwards.”

“Appropriation of money for the armed services can be only for a period limited to ­­­___ years.”

That’s all perfectly clear, right?

The first two questions were from a 1964 Louisiana literacy test. The third was from a series of constitutional questions on the 1965 Alabama literacy test. Tests that were given with the intent of denying citizens — usually African-Americans — the right to vote. (You get extra credit if you can explain why, like the first two questions, there’s no correct answer to the third question.)

Those and other questions from the voting rights tests were handed out to about 30 people attending the “Benchmarks: Raising the Bar on Civics Education” CLE course at the Bar’s Winter Meeting in Orlando.

The course followed a meeting of the Constitutional Judiciary Committee — which sponsored the CLE program — where committee members discussed ways to educate voters about the role of the third branch of government.

Richard Levenstein, a member of the committee, opened the seminar by enumerating dismal statistics that a number of surveys have revealed about civics knowledge among U.S. citizens, including that more than 40 percent cannot name the three branches of government and that many Florida voters think that appellate judges are on the merit retention ballot because they have done something wrong and hence should be removed.

As he summed it up: “More people can name the Three Stooges than can name three justices sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Annette Boyd Pitts, executive director of the Florida Law Related Education Association, cited another telling statistic. One in three natural born U.S. citizens fail the civics portion of the naturalization exam given to immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship. The passage rate for the immigrants taking the test is 97.5 percent. And that, she said, is because the immigrants study for the test and learn about the U.S. system of government.

With a reduction in civics education in Florida classrooms, the Benchmarks program aims to bring civics education to adults in an engaging way to make up that deficit, Pitts said. It is built upon the Justice Teaching initiative, which assigns a lawyer or judge to every school in Florida to teach about the third branch of government.

One of the Benchmarks programs is built on that naturalization test, Pitts and Levenstein said. The audience is divided into groups and each group is given a set of cards, each with a question or answer from the test. The object is for each group to work together to match each question with the correct answer.

A newer program on voting rights includes the “literacy” test questions given above. Other programs focus on Bill of Rights protections, how to evaluate judicial candidates, and a program that invites the audience to consider the constitutionality of a fictional law, among other topics.

The key, according to Pitts and Levenstein, is each program requires the active participation of the audience rather than subjecting attendees to the passive role of listeners to a lecture.

Bar President Eugene Pettis stopped by the seminar and underscored the importance of civics knowledge.

“I think the public doesn’t get involved because they don’t understand, and when they don’t understand, they become susceptible. They become susceptible to things like 30-second TV commercials,” he said. “You can do this [Benchmarks programs] at church; you can do it there. You can go to your community association; you can do it there. You can go to Rotary; you can do it there. You’ll get the public engaged in these issues.”

Pettis noted last year that the Bar’s “The Vote’s In Your Court” education program about merit retention was successful. But he said education needs to be an ongoing project in quiet, nonelection years so there’s less incentive for special interests to try to influence judicial elections and so voters have a better basic understanding of the legal system.

Course materials and more information about the Benchmarks program are on the Bar’s website at floridabar.org/benchmarks.

The seminar also included a presentation about the National Association of Women Judges education campaign about the judicial branch. (See story in the February 1 Bar News.)

That new effort was also discussed at the Constitutional Judiciary Committee, where Pitts said the NAWJ program is a good fit with Benchmarks and can be adapted in each state to fit the specifics of its judicial system and method of selecting judges.

Pitts also said the new voting rights Benchmarks program will be a natural fit with the ABA’s theme for the upcoming Law Week: “American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Counts.”

That involves a discussion of who should be allowed to vote (adult, nonfelon citizens is the frequent audience conclusion) and a review of voting rights litigation.

“One lesson includes examples of the literacy tests given in the 1960s,” Pitts said. “People will walk away saying, ‘Oh, my God, I had no idea.’ It’s surprising to me how little we know about that.”

For more information about getting involved in the Benchmarks program, contact Suzannah Lyle at the Bar at slyle@flabar.org. Speaking engagements for those trained to present Benchmarks seminars are arranged through the Bar’s Speakers Bureau and an online training webinar for Benchmark speakers is at floridabar.org/benchmarks.

[Revised: 09-01-2014]