Thursday, August 27, 2015

Community Services Committee: Will You Help Us Raise the Bar on Adult Civics Education?

By Sacha Dyson

     If you have ever watched “JayWalking” with Jay Leno, then you know there is a troubling deficiency in adult civics competency and a striking need for education. Person after person stumbles on questions that most elementary school children can answer. Last year, the Annenberg Public Policy Center surveyed 1,416 adults on this topic with astonishing results:
  •   64 percent could not name the three branches of government.
  •  35 percent could not name a single branch of government.
  •  73 percent do not know that it takes a two-thirds vote of Congress to override a presidential veto.
  • 21 percent believe that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for a determination.
     Similarly, a 2011 Annenberg survey found that nearly twice as many people could correctly name a justice on American Idol than those who could correctly identify the current chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. This same survey found that only 42 percent of respondents know that serving on a jury is a duty exclusively for United States citizens.

     While the disapproval rating for Congress and the Supreme Court is increasing, the Annenberg surveys demonstrate that few people understand how these branches of government work. This is a problem for lawyers. Uninformed citizens are less likely to vote and, more importantly, less likely to support the judicial system. As lawyers, we have a duty to protect and support the independence of the judiciary. One way to serve this responsibility is through education. Indeed, The Florida Bar has recognized that “[a]n informed public is the best defense of a vigorous democracy, the rule of law, and a fair and impartial judiciary.” 

     In recognition of the important role that attorneys play in adult civics education, The Florida Bar created Benchmarks: Raising the Bar on Civics Education, which provides presentations and activities that attorneys can use to talk about the government and the courts to adult civic and community groups. Attorneys who are trained in providing these presentations are eligible to earn 1 CLE ethics credit hour for each presentation (up to a total of 3 hours per reporting period). Currently, there are 10 presentations available on the Constitution, the courts, and special topics, such as the citizenship test and voting rights. These presentations are easy to give, interactive, and fun for both the presenter and audience. 

     The Community Services Committee is launching the Benchmarks program in Tampa. It will be one of the five programs that the committee is hosting this year (others include Adopt a Veteran, Elves for Elders, Dining with Dignity, and a Pirate Plunder Party at A Kid’s Place). The committee will be planning a training session for attorneys interested in giving Benchmarks presentations, advertising these presentations to local civic and community groups, and helping to match attorney volunteers with these opportunities. Won’t you come be a part of implementing this vital program? Our first meeting is September 2 at noon at the Chester H. Ferguson Law Center.