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Bar News - November 19, 2010

President's Perspective: Even Kids Know the Rules of the Road


Marilyn Billings McNamara
Americans are born to the road. There are very few four-year-olds who donít know that red means, "Stop" and green means, "Go" and that cars take turns so they donít crash into one another. By the time a kid is 12 or so, he or she is not only familiar with the rules of the road, but is judgmental about parental compliance with them. Driverís Education looms large in the adolescent experience; instructors patiently teach new drivers about the technical aspects of merging, yielding and passing, among other skills. Shortly after the signature on the Driverís Ed certificate is dry, our children take a deep breath, answer a series of easy questions and come out of the driving test triumphant (or devastated, depending).

We expend enormous resources, both in time and money, to assure that those who use our motorways have at least a working knowledge of the operational rules and a fundamental understanding of automotive physics. What driver can claim that he or she did not know that a sign saying, "Right turn only" meant you could only turn to the right, or that a sign that said, "One Way," accompanied by an arrow, was perhaps just a suggestion?

Enforcement of the rules of the physical road is vital; disobey the rules and you may die, or kill, or destroy property. Itís easy to support the development of rules to assure our safety, prevent the worst offenders from careening down our streets and punish those who flaunt the law. And the rules evolve, based on changes in technology, practice and automotive design. Remember when no one turned right on red? Ever?

What about the Bill of Rights?

I recently had the opportunity to hear retired Justice David Souter speak at a conference of social studies teachers. He cited discouraging statistics from a recent survey (he gave the source, but I failed to capture it); it appears that a significant number of American citizens believe, for example, that the Supreme Court is a committee of Congress. Curious to learn more, I read a survey produced by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in 2009; that survey indicates that 39 percent of Americans could not name any of the freedoms contained in the First Amendment. (That doesnít mean they werenít aware of, for example, freedom of speech, but that they did not know where that protection came from).

Lawyers can attest to a lack of fundamental knowledge and understanding on the part of the litigants with whom they interact. Non-lawyers have little patience with the statutes or the body of law behind every case that comes to the tribunal, and even less with the process of justice as defined and guided by the Rules of Court. There seems to be a declining respect of the role of the judiciary, the need for due process and the importance of the judicial rules of the road in delivering full and fair justice to all. Is it any wonder that the courts are struggling for adequate funding when many citizens expect fast, easy, 140-character responses to complex problems, all delivered within the hour, if not the minute?

In my last article I referred to the volunteering that lawyers do within and without the legal community. We are also teachers, largely volunteer, to a wide audience of citizens, including schoolchildren, clients, friends and neighbors and non-lawyer volunteers. That said, the comprehensive education of our citizenry requires a collaborative effort between those who are trained to instruct and those who are trained to advocate.

Lawyers must press for a school curriculum that teaches our children about the operation of our democracy and the protection of our fundamental rights. Starting from the time a child begins to understand fairness (some researchers suggest that even pre-verbal babies recognize fair play) and onward, we need a comprehensive approach to citizen education that yields Americans who not only understand that there are three branches of government, but that the words "checks and balances" refer to something far more important than oneís banking practices.

Marilyn Billings McNamara is an attorney at Upton & Hatfield in Concord. She is the 2010-11 NH Bar Association president.

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