Retired Justice David Souter implored lawyers attending the ABA annual meeting to revive effective civics education or face the “danger” of a nation that doesn’t value judicial independence because it doesn’t understand it.
In one of his first speeches since leaving the Supreme Court this year, Souter told those gathered in downtown Chicago this evening that he and his schoolmates understood the three branches of government by the time they were in the ninth grade and lamented that survey results today suggest that two-thirds of Americans can’t even name those three branches.
“I’m here to speak this evening because civic education in the United States is not good enough, and we have to do something about it,” Souter said in a somber tone. “I want to speak about the risk to constitutional government when a substantial portion of the American populace simply fails to gain that understanding. In particular, I’ll ask you to consider the danger to judicial independence when people have no conception of how the judiciary fits within the constitutional scheme.”
Souter recalled how he came to learn the structure of government, including some sense of the different functions of legislative, judicial and executive authorities, as a New Hampshire youngster sitting through annual town meetings. He also learned the difference between the town’s power and the state’s power, and observed how the moderator of the meeting allowed anyone in town to have his or her say.
It was three years ago at a Georgetown University Law Center conference on the state of the judiciary that he and some judicial colleagues saw the need for increased civic education. He recalled early on in that conference hearing the two-thirds static.
“Without some idea of separations of powers, limitations of power and the need to enforce those limits, the idea of judicial independence must be practically meaningless,” Souter said.
“If anyone is in doubt about what is at stake for the American judiciary,” Souter said he could only invoke Benjamin Franklin’s warning that Americans have a republic only "if you can keep it.”
Souter asked the lawyers gathered to do their part to ensure that basic civic knowledge is improved. He noted that a judicial project sponsored by fellow former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is working on the problem already. The ABA has to chip in too, he said.
“I ask you to make this effort a powerful one, to take part in it, every one of you in every way that you can,” he said.
After a standing ovation for the retired justice, a group of (maybe junior high) students took the stage before Souter and other ABA officials to conclude the program by singing, “Oh Happy Day.”