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Bar News - August 19, 2011

President’s Perspective: Could You Pass The Test?


Jennifer L. Parent
Every person who comes to this country and wishes to become a citizen of the United States must pass a test about our nation’s founding principles, history, and governmental structure. Would your knowledge of civics be enough to pass that test? It is an intriguing question.

There are some staggering statistics about the limited knowledge Americans have about our government, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and our justice system. A 2006 study found that one-third of adults could not name even one of the three branches of government. Another study revealed a lack of understanding of our system of checks and balances and separation of powers, as more than one-third of American adults believe that the President of the United States may disregard a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. And just last year, a study showed that two- thirds of Americans could not name one of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices.

Civic knowledge is essential to the protection of our constitutional democracy. The phrase "We the people" expresses the essence of our democratic self government – "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people." There is no more important goal than having an understanding of our government and the fundamental values and principles of our Constitution. With such knowledge, people realize that their rights as citizens go hand in hand with their personal responsibility to be an informed and an involved citizenry.

I recall my education about federal and state government and the history of the founding of our country from my days in public school here in New Hampshire. I also recall gaining insight about the fabric of America through Schoolhouse Rock! I know some of you out there know what I am talking about. In between Saturday morning cartoons, Schoolhouse Rock! taught me through animated musical videos about grammar, including how to connect words, sentences, phrases, or clauses together using conjunctions. I learned the words to the preamble to the U.S. Constitution (which I still know, although I need to sing it) from the video "Preamble – We the People." I discovered how a bill becomes law from the jingle "I’m Just A Bill." I studied history from the "No More Kings" and "The Shot Heard Round the World" clips. And I learned about the process for constitutional amendments as it related to voting rights from "Sufferin’—Till Suffrage." These tunes have in one way or another all stayed with me through the years. I am sure some of you are humming the tunes to yourself right now.

We as lawyers are probably more knowledgeable about civics than the average citizen given our law school training and profession. It is only fitting that we raise the bar on civics education. It is time to take action.

The New Hampshire Bar Association and the New Hampshire Bar Foundation are embarking on a joint civic initiative called Civics in Action. The idea is to engage adults through fast-paced, interactive activities that focus on their role as citizens and enhance their knowledge of our government and our court system. Civics In Action will inform audiences about our representative democracy. Using questions from the U.S. Citizenship Test, participants will be prompted to discuss our government and how it relates to the rule of law and the justice system. The goal this year is to bring this program to every Rotary Club in New Hampshire from Constitution Day (September 17, 2011) to Law Day (May 1, 2012).

At the 2009 ABA Annual Meeting, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter warned that limited knowledge about the basic shape of government was "something to worry about" and "a risk to the constitutional government." Justice Souter challenged us as members of the profession to "take on the job of making American civic education real again." He asked, "What better work can you do?"

Heeding this call, Civics In Action is designed to give attorneys activities that they can use to demonstrate the fundamentals of our system of government, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and our judicial system. We will be looking for members of the Bar to volunteer to be trained as Ambassadors to present the activity "Could You Pass The Test?" through several different approaches. I encourage you to get involved in this effort. A formal call for volunteers will be issued shortly.

Knowledge about the fundamental values and principles of our constitutional democracy is key to an understanding of our rights and responsibilities as citizens. It ensures the rights of individuals are protected. Could you pass the test?

Jennifer L. Parent is the President of the New Hampshire Bar Association for the 2011-2012 year. She is a director of the McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton law firm and chair of its Employment Practice Group.

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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