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The Florida Bar Journal
May, 2016 Volume 90, No. 5
Justice Teaching: A Rewarding Experience

by Sheri L. Hazeltine

Page 32

I have been fortunate to work as a volunteer with Justice Teaching,1 founded by Florida Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis2 in 2006, with the ultimate goal to pair a legal professional with every elementary, middle, and high school in Florida.

Because of my own love for teaching, children, and my own experiences raising a special needs child with cerebral palsy, I joined the Justice Teaching program in 2007 and attended the attorney training class taught by Justice Lewis and Annette Pitts. I was mesmerized by the passion and liveliness both displayed as they spoke to the crowd of attorneys. They spoke about their deep belief about the importance for students to be educated about the role of the courts in our constitutional structure. They explained how it was not possible to improve justice and government systems unless citizens understood these systems and their legal rights. Both cited statistics and facts showing that most Americans do not understand the basic principles about civics education.

After I took the training class, I was fired up. I hesitantly asked 15th Judicial Circuit Judge John Phillips to join the Justice Teaching program and co-teach students at my son’s school, Royal Palm School in Lantana.3 I was so excited when he accepted.

Since then, Judge Phillips, teacher Regina Brodsky, and I have worked together in the classroom or arranged for the students to be transported by school bus to his courtroom at least 20 times. The students love it when Judge Phillips visits, as his lessons are always educational and entertaining. We have had some of the best mock trials in Judge Phillips’ courtroom, including Circuit Judge Richard Oftedahl and myself serving as the attorneys, the students as jurors; and with judicial assistants, courthouse deputies, and friends enlisted as witnesses.

According to Judge Phillips:

In my 30 years as a judge and 9 years as a lawyer, Justice Teaching has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done. The Justice Teaching lessons available online for use by lawyer and judge volunteers are imaginative, complete, tailored for specific age groups, and easily presented. The main thing volunteers must have, I think, is a love of children, and a desire to communicate the reality of our government and system of laws. Teaching expertise is not necessary! It amazes me how much success we have in Justice Teaching sessions just by “showing up.” Students seem to be impressed by meeting actual lawyers and judges in their school, and if the volunteer has a reciprocal enthusiasm to discuss legal topics with the students, success is assured.

He said, “All of us do this work from a love of kids, love of our profession, and love of our system of government. Our rewards have always been the positive response of the students and faculty at the schools we serve. We need more volunteers to continue this worthwhile program. If you love kids and want to make a positive impact on them, this is the program for you.”

In June 2015, to our great surprise, Judge Phillips and I were honored to receive statewide awards from the Justice Teaching program, which were presented to us at the Judicial Luncheon at The Florida Bar Annual Convention by Justice Lewis. It was a great honor we will never forget.

I would encourage all attorneys and judges to read about the Justice Teaching program on its website and to sign up for a training session. Volunteer now to teach to a class about law-related education and civics, even if you are only able to contribute a small portion of your time per year.

1 Justice Teaching,

2 The idea is to connect judges and other legal professionals with teachers “who want a unique, personal justice-related educational experience for students,” said Justice Lewis. Noting that state and national surveys show many citizens know little about the operations of the justice system and basic principles of our Constitution — with just over half of Americans able to correctly identify the three branches of government — he views his mission as correcting misconceptions and strengthening public trust and confidence in our legal system. “Through civic education, the next generation must understand that they alone are the guardians of our future freedom,” Lewis said. Jan Pudlow, R. Fred Lewis — Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, 80 Fla. B. J. 10 (Oct. 2006).

3 Royal Palm School, Royal Palm School (a public high school) has a large population of special needs students, including students with significant/severe physical, emotional, cognitive, communication, and social deficits. A majority of the students are nonverbal and use low-tech communication devices, and many have intense medical needs such as G-tube feeding and trach/suctioning.

Sheri L. Hazeltine is chair of the Law Related Education Committee of The Florida Bar. She has a solo practice in Delray Beach focusing on guardian advocacy for the developmentally disabled, guardianship, restoration of capacity, and special needs trusts. She is also the vice president of the statewide advocacy group, Florida’s Voice on Developmental Disabilities, and the mom of a 19-year-old son who is differently-abled.

[Revised: 04-26-2016]