The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Civics Literacy: No Laughing Matter

President's Page

Photo of Eugene Pettis

We have all heard the jokes (and maybe even told a few ourselves) about the general public’s lack of understanding of the judicial system and our overall democracy. Tragic statistics — such as more than one in five Americans believe the three branches of government are Republican, Democrat, and Independent; or less than half of Americans can correctly explain the concept of separation of powers — provide fodder for late-night comedians.

Our society has undergone dual transformations. On the one hand, we have become a more diverse and inclusive country in our neighborhoods, educational institutions, and workplaces. At the same time, our politics have become more homogeneous. This is partly due to redistricting efforts to create greater diversity. But it has created districts void of any contrary views or interests.

There was a day when the television evening news was a reliable source of objective reporting. Now, we have a menu of networks predictably biased toward one extreme or the other. Talk radio feeds on slanderous commentary directed to a specific sector rather than any pretense of objectivity. The Internet gives cover to deplorable comments that often reflect the worst of society.

Somewhere along the way political accountability for ineffectiveness was lost. The days when congressmen would propose legislation with bipartisan backing seems like a distant past. Why is that? Could it be that our citizens started retreating from engagement in current affairs and are ignoring government operations? And, if that is true, could it be because people are simply not educated on civics and how democracy should work?

I choose to believe that, as dim as the horizon may look, there is still hope for reclaiming our civility in this country, and the legal profession must lead the way!

My hope is not without basis. We don’t need to look very far to see how aberrant behavior can be reversed when the community as a whole stands up and speaks out.

In 2012, Florida held a merit retention vote for many of our appellate judges, including three Supreme Court justices. In September, a political party executive council took an unprecedented position by voting to oppose the three justices.

What they did not anticipate was the uprising of citizens in all parties stating that such partisan politics is not acceptable in our court system. They recognized the foundation of the merit retention process was designed to take politics out of our courts.

It was former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who said, “The Founders realized there has to be someplace where being right is more important than being popular or powerful, and where fairness trumps strength. And in our country, that place is supposed to be the courtroom.”

The Florida Bar, through study and analysis, learned that many Florida voters were simply unclear on what judicial merit retention meant. We learned that generally there was up to a 30 percent drop-off of voting at the bottom of the ballot, compared to the top of the ticket. In elections, citizens were skipping the judicial section of the ballot. The Florida Bar, under the leadership of my predecessors, developed an award-winning education program, “The Vote’s in YOUR COURT.” This program has been recognized nationally for educating citizens on the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary.

A key initiative that I have undertaken is broadening the scope of a Bar program, “Benchmarks: Raising the Bar on Civics Education.” This is a speaker’s network designed to give attorneys activities they can use to teach the fundamentals of government and the courts to adult civics and community groups.

The Bar has also partnered with the National Association of Women Judges to advance its program, “Informed Voters”, which is also educating the public about civics. This program is supported by Justice O’Connor.

We must advance civics education year-round. It cannot be a reaction to crisis politics. Our profession must create grass-roots initiatives to educate the citizens on the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary, separation of powers, and checks and balances. It is only then that we can expect people to respect the rule of law.

Keep in mind that civics literacy is not just for politicians or lawyers, but, rather, it is a key ingredient for our entire quality of life. It is essential to the success of our business communities and other sectors of society.

We as a society must get re-engaged in civics literacy. In an ever-divided society, a commitment to civics should be our common ground. While we can certainly have different political, religious, and moral differences, a key ingredient for a civilized society is being educated on the importance of civics. It is only through knowledge that people will develop respect for such principles.

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