Around the country, and especially during the recent election cycle, news headlines have often painted a discouraging picture of civic life and community. We see division everywhere: partisan gridlock in Washington; citizen mistrust of government and law enforcement; and the tumultuous and astonishingly uncivil presidential campaign.
Some citizens deal with it by getting angrier; others become cynical and just tune out. But all three branches of our democracy are weakened when citizens do not participate constructively in civic life.
The oath of attorney we all took in Washington presupposes service and constructive civic engagement in the judicial branch. The judicial branch is where we work every day: finding and applying the law; appearing before judges; doing our best to help our clients solve the legal issues confronting them.
How is the judicial branch weakened when citizens are not productively engaged in civic life? And how can we as lawyers support and facilitate such engagement?
The Judicial Branch and Civic Life
Former Judge Anne Ellington has seen a fair amount of confusion and misperception about the judicial branch. Judge Ellington served 11 years in King County Superior Court before her 17 years of service in Division One of the state Court of Appeals.
“Part of the problem is that we make the judicial system so complicated. Do we really expect citizens to understand all the differences between municipal, district and superior court?” Judge Ellington said. “A basic sense of the structure of the court system and the purpose of the judicial branch is critical.”
Citizens need to understand, for example, the limits of judicial authority. “From a personal standpoint, one misperception that I saw was an idea that judges have the latitude to do whatever they want,” Judge Ellington added. “People don’t always understand the law-based, rules-based limits on the court’s discretion.”
Judge Ellington observed that many people learned about the court system for the first time when serving on a jury, which could be characterized as hands-on civic learning for adults. “They saw what a trial really is — not just how it’s portrayed on TV,” she said. “All the rules, the tremendous responsibility a jury has. I think most people emerged from jury service with more appreciation for the dignity of the process.”
Judge Ellington said she believes “civic education is critical” and that it needs to be provided “through media that will reach people.” What if more potential jurors learned early on about the judicial branch and their own responsibility as jurors through excellent civic learning?
Judge J. Robert Leach was a lawyer in private practice for more than 30 years before his appointment to Division One of the Court of Appeals in 2008. “One of the biggest misperceptions about the judicial system that I see nowadays has to do with what I do now, as an appellate court judge,” he said. “People ask if I hear traffic cases — they just have no idea what a Court of Appeals judge does.”
That lack of knowledge can make it difficult for voters to cast an informed vote in judicial races, several of which were hotly contested in Washington in November. Judge Leach noted that a lack of knowledge about the legal system also affects access to justice. “When I was practicing law,” he said, “by the time my clients came to see me, they had a pretty good idea of what their problem was and their need for legal help. But there are many people who don’t know anything about the legal system. They don’t ever make it to the lawyer’s office.”
Legal clinics can help educate those who need advocacy but are overwhelmed by the legal issues they’re facing. Judge Leach also praised the work of lawforwa.org, whose mission is to provide the people of Washington easy access to information on the law, the courts, the government, and civic rights and responsibilities. Judge Leach said informed citizens have the power to effect change: “Community activists have even used the courts as a lever for social change when legislative processes have failed.”
But Judge Leach emphasizes that the first resort is the legislative process, and that he is always surprised when he occasionally meets people — including “informed, well-educated people who read the newspaper” — who don’t vote. “I just don’t understand this,” he said. “The ballot box is where it all starts.”
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