General description of the program
Civics 603 supplements middle to high-school (6-12th grade) students’ education on the Bill of Rights, the three branches of government, and civil discourse. The program currently utilizes one of two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases involving important issues that touch on the students’ daily lives: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (in which the Supreme Court held that students do not lose their First Amendment right to freedom of speech when they step onto school property and established some standards for regulating speech in public schools) and New Jersey v. T.L.O. (in which the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to public school officials and established the basic test for evaluating the propriety of school-based searches and seizures). Students travel to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, meet with court officials, learn about one of the cases and, using worksheets provided to them and with the assistance of law clerks, develop mock appellate arguments that they then present to lawyers acting as judges. The in-court program is approximately 120 minutes. At the conclusion of the program, students generally meet with, and ask questions of, one of the judges of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. About a week prior to the courtroom component, a lawyer travels to the school to give the students a one-hour primer on the case and the Bill of Rights, and prepare them for the upcoming argument. If the school is unable to travel to the Supreme Court, Civics 603 is generally able to have the program go to the school.
Various aspects of the program can be adjusted to suit the particular needs of the school and the age of the students. The program is free to participating schools and support for transportation costs is available to qualifying schools.
The program provides basic information about the structure of the Constitution; the operation of certain rights contained in the Bill of Rights; the three branches of government; the difference between the state and federal governments, between trials and appeals, and between civil and criminal cases; what constitutes evidence; the roles played by lawyers, court staff and judges; and the effect of “the times” on legal cases. Of course, the program also teaches the students about the facts and procedural history of, and issues presented in, the particular case they are studying.
The process the students go through during the “two-day” event – making an initial judgment about the proper outcome of the case, thinking about the issues from different perspectives, having their arguments tested with questions, rethinking their initial assessment – makes students aware of the challenges inherent in implementing the Bill of Rights, the balancing of interests that is often required in deciding legal issues (as well as in life), the need to think critically about the strengths, weaknesses, and wisdom of their own positions as well as the need to listen to and think carefully about the opposing side’s concerns, and the need to sometimes compromise. Students also learn about the need to be respectful to each other and in Court, as face-making, scoffing, and interruptions are not permitted.
The students learn about the importance of advocating for themselves and their beliefs, and the impact that a single person can have on the justice system and on history. Students learn that some of the concerns expressed by U.S. Supreme Court justices in written opinions mirror their own concerns, and this demonstrates their ability to participate meaningfully in the democratic process as well as the value and importance of their civic engagement.
Many students learn that they are capable of speaking up and speaking articulately in front of a large group and that they even enjoy doing so. Many are buoyed by the positive comments they receive during and after their arguments by lawyers and court personnel. All of this has a positive impact on students’ confidence and self-esteem, can change the course of their personal development, and inspire them to be involved in community activities and the legal system.
The reaction of students and teachers
Students and teachers alike have been enthusiastic about the program. Teachers have said that they feel their students have gotten a “master class” in appellate practice. Students frequently comment on their surveys that they “loved” the program, “had a blast,” and “would 100% do it again.”
The program’s coordinator will work with your school to ensure that you have a similarly rewarding experience. As noted, the program may be adjusted in light of the age and background of the students involved. Older students who have previously studied TLO or Tinker, for example, may be presented with new fact patterns and asked to apply the precedent of TLO or Tinker to those new fact patterns.
For more information, please contact Martha Madsen firstname.lastname@example.org.