Trial Lawyers Section hosts ‘law school’ for teachers
By Jim Ash
Democracy thrives on the dynamic tension between co-equal branches of government. But some legal scholars are worried that appreciation for the bedrock principle is being threatened by political polarization, shrinking attention spans, or apathy.
Advocates say education — especially about the little-understood judiciary — is a potential solution. It’s one reason some 120 middle and high school civics and social studies teachers flocked to the Gaylord Palms Resort in Kissimmee in January for the Seventh Annual Teachers Law School.
Sponsored by The Florida Bar’s Trial Lawyers Section, the event featured two days of workshops and guest speakers, including U.S. District Judge John Antoon II; former Florida Bar President Bill Schifino; and Miami trial lawyer Benedict Kuehne, counsel to Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential recount.
Veteran Teachers Law School organizer Wes Smith says that while the topics may touch on famous political controversies, Teachers Law School is non-partisan and is not an indictment of Florida schools.
“Social studies teachers are doing a good job,” Smith said. “I just think we needed young people to become more interested in how the legal system in the United States functions.”
Smith says the goal is to inspire teachers to excite their students about the functions of government, the importance of the judiciary and legal advocacy, and the challenges and rewards of public service. Organizers cover the teachers’ travel and accommodation costs and the teachers earn continuing education credits and certificates of completion.
While the words “excite” and “social science” don’t often appear in the same sentence, Smith says one speaker — Kuehne — was mobbed by teachers demanding selfies after a workshop. A handful of teachers who attended previous workshops drove hundreds of miles to attend this year’s event.
The first Teachers Law School drew only 30 participants when it was held seven years ago. The event has grown so popular, organizers are now considering capping participation.
Rachel Slone, president of the Florida Association of Social Studies Supervisors, considers the Teachers Law School an unqualified success and “an amazing experience . . . from start to finish.”
“You could really tell the people who presented it researched our curriculum,” Slone said. “He was using cases that were from our end-of-course exam.”
One workshop taught the fundamentals of creating a mock trial competition, the result of feedback from the last event, Smith said. Schifino, who chairs the Judicial Committee of the Constitution Revision Commission, updated teachers on the CRC process.
Fear of controversy and dwindling budgets have pushed civics education too far to the margins of public education, insists Kuehne.
“Justice matters. Civics matters. How people are treated by government matters,” Kuehne says. “We have lost sight of civics and the role of government and the justice system in society. And Teachers Law School is a great reminder that we have to reach our children.”
Few people have Kuehne’s first-hand knowledge of a constitutional crisis or can fully appreciate the consequences of the separation of powers doctrine. The U.S. Supreme Court decision, “Bush v. Gore,” didn’t go his way, but it decided a presidency and altered world history.
Kuehne borrows from the experience to help teachers appreciate the significance of their work.
“What made it so fascinating is that it was uniquely Florida, but at the same time, the most important legal matter going on in the world,” Kuehne said. “What these teachers have going on in their classrooms is uniquely important to these teachers, but also, hugely important for our country.”
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor agrees. It’s why she made civics education a mission after she stepped down from the court in 2006. O’Connor’s dedication inspired the first Teachers Law School.
The concept migrated to The Florida Bar after members of the Trial Lawyers Section attended an American Board of Trial Advocates event in Texas seven years ago.
Next year, Smith says, advocates are considering expanding the Teachers Law School so it once again coincides with the section’s annual Chester H. Bedell Mock Trial Competition for Florida law schools.
“It’s one of those things you do where there’s a lot of work involved, but when you’re at the program, and the program’s over, it’s really satisfying to know you did something good for the community,” Smith said.