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Bar News - November 18, 2015

Promoting Civics Education in NH: How the Bar and lawyers are helping


Retired US Supreme Court Justice David Souter autographs a team photo for Milford High School students who participate in the Bar-sponsored We the People program.

What does it mean for the future of our democracy when only about one-third of Americans can actually name the three branches of government?

Many people in New Hampshire, including retired US Supreme Court Justice David Souter, are gravely concerned about the implications of the decline in civics education in public schools. The Annenberg Public Policy Center, in a 2014 survey, found that only 36 percent of the 1,416 adults surveyed could identify the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

Souter, who joined former Senator Judd Gregg in a discussion on this topic at Nashua Community College last month, said the decline in civics education in American public schools is “a politically inspired phenomenon” that began in the 1970s. Calling the federal No Child Left Behind statute “the biggest stumbling block” to reversing the trend, Souter called on local leaders, including attorneys, to bring the issue to the attention of their local school boards.

“If we do nothing, and we maintain the present level of civic ignorance, there is a serious question of whether 25 years from now we are going to have a recognizable democracy,” he said during the event, which was attended by many government officials and education luminaries.

The New Hampshire Bar Association sponsors civics programs for students and provides resources for educators at all levels who want to incorporate civics into their lesson plans. Most recently, the NH Bar Association published an updated version of Patriots, Pirates, Politicians and Profit-Seekers, a fascinating tour of many of the New Hampshire cases that have gone before the United States Supreme Court, helping to shape interpretations of the US Constitution and federal law.

First published 20 years ago, the new edition of the book is now available for free to download from the NH Bar Association website. Each chapter tells the story of several New Hampshire cases, illustrating advances in the law, and explaining why the resulting High Court decisions remain relevant today. The book concludes with brief profiles of seven New Hampshire lawyers who served on the US Supreme Court, with extended treatments of two, Souter and Levi Woodbury.

Attorney Martin Bender and Joan Blanchard, a retired teacher and librarian, teamed up to research and write a book on cases from NH that led to key US Supreme Court decisions.

The book was written by Joan Blanchard, a retired teacher and librarian, and Martin Bender, a Concord attorney. The second edition, converted to digital format and with an added teachers’ edition, was unveiled earlier this month at the NH Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Manchester. At the conference, lawyers Jack Middleton and Dave DePuy presented a workshop for teachers on one of the cases featured in the book, which they argued before the High Court.

The new version features new cases decided in the past two decades and some minor revisions added by a team of reviewers, including senior status Judge Kathleen McGuire, retired teacher Arthur Pease, and Robert Lamberti Jr., a former law student who now works as an investigator for the NH Commission on Human Rights.

Blanchard developed a teacher’s edition of the new book, which includes references to state educational standards and a variety of educational activities to expand the value of the original research. Partial funding for the production of the digital edition was provided by the NH Supreme Court Society, which has also produced a companion traveling exhibition, highlighting New Hampshire cases decided by the US Supreme Court.

The NH Bar Association Law Related Education program also sponsors and coordinates We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution. In addition to learning history, law, civics, and social studies, students participating in We the People synthesize this knowledge to formulate complex arguments in response to high-level questions and compete in local, state and national competitions. Visiting the NH Legislative Office Building in Concord to watch or judge a We the People competition, attorneys are often impressed by the students’ grasp of the material and their ability to wrap current events into their arguments. We the People is a self-contained curriculum available to schools and teachers throughout the state.

Right now, the Bar Association is looking for attorneys to volunteer as judges at one of the upcoming We the People competitions (contact Robin E. Knippers):

District Hearings
Friday, Dec. 11
(snow date Dec. 14)
9 a.m. to noon (awards to follow)
Legislative Office Building, Concord, NH

State Finals
Friday, Jan. 8, 2016
(snow date Jan. 11)
9 a.m. to noon & 1-4 p.m. (awards to follow)
Legislative Office Building, Concord, NH

The Bar Association also collaborated with the NH Bar Foundation in Civics in Action, a program presented to 58 Rotary and 17 Kiwanis clubs throughout the state. Volunteer attorneys quizzed the audience on the same questions posed to those seeking US citizenship. Civics in Action Goes Viral is an effort to bring these presentations into New Hampshire classrooms. The Bar also coordinates classroom visits by volunteer lawyers each year on Law Day.

A bill introduced earlier this year in the NH Senate (SB 157-FN) would encourage high school students to take and pass a test similar to the citizenship test as a component of their education.

Citizens need to know how government works so that they can be informed and engaged voters. Without that foundation, they can’t ask the questions at town meeting and candidate forums that elicit telling responses. Improving civic education in New Hampshire’s public schools needs to start at the local level, in classrooms and school board meetings, according to Justice Souter. There are groups and individuals who are working for change, but more people need to take notice and get involved.

“I think there is movement, but it’s not the kind of turnaround we need,” Souter said. “You don’t get things done in New Hampshire very well by cramming them down from the top… The way you get things done is to create the demand where the local school boards can hear it.”

For more information about the NH Bar Association civics education programs and teacher resources, please visit the Law Related Education page at or contact programs coordinator Robin E. Knippers.

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