Bolch Judicial Institute
Duke Law School
While working as a United States magistrate judge, I had the great (and rather humbling) honor to serve as national president of the Federal Bar Association (FBA) from 2016 to 2017. One year prior to taking on that role, I had an opportunity to meet with Jim Duff, then the director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO). When I met Jim, I told him that a magistrate judge had never served as FBA president, and I wanted to contribute in a substantive way, in the hope that my service might make a difference to the federal courts. He suggested that the FBA focus on civics education, offering a rather shocking statistic: Less than one-third of adult Americans could identify the three branches of government.1 Far fewer, it seems, understand how the federal courts work or how judges are selected.2
We agreed, right then and there, that the FBA should create a national civics program. How to create such a program (and make it successful) was a much harder question, but working as a team, the FBA did so.3 Our first decision was to focus on civics education for young people, rather than adults. We spent one year planning the initiative, and the following year — the year of my presidency — we implemented our plan.
It is incredibly rewarding, and very moving, to be with young people as they come to appreciate the importance of the Third Branch for the first time and learn how hard judges work to fairly and equitably decide cases. I’ve watched as students from underserved neighborhoods participate in a mock trial and then tell me they hope to be the first person in their family to go to college and become a lawyer. Students who have job-shadowed me have shared, at the end of the day, that they want to engage in public service — just like the lawyers and judges they’ve watched. And, recently, I had a first-year law student tell me that he had decided to attend law school after hearing lawyers and judges speak at a civics presentation the FBA gave at his high school years ago.
Thanks to Jim and his bold idea — and the resulting national civics initiative for young people that the FBA created — federal judges across the United States have had the opportunity to personally meet with thousands of young people, in courtrooms and classrooms, to talk about the rule of law, separation of powers, the federal courts, justice, and due process, among many other topics. Without question, helping to create and run this national civics initiative is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done as a federal judge.
How did the civics initiative get started? At Jim’s suggestion, I first called Rebecca Fanning, the AO’s national educational outreach manager (read her article Involve, Inform, Inspire). Rebecca and I met for two full days and she proceeded to show me every freely available internet civics resource she could find.4 She had also authored a substantial amount of civics materials herself, though they were located on the federal courts’ intranet and thus inaccessible to the public. I suggested, and she and Jim Duff graciously agreed, that the FBA could partner with the AO and host these civics materials for the public at fedbar.org/civics — a web address we believed lawyers, judges, teachers, and students could easily remember.
Another idea Rebecca and I had was to make it easy for federal judges to participate in civics programming. Knowing how busy judges are, we set about organizing Rebecca’s materials by the amount of time a judge would have to spend with the students. We categorized the materials into four groups: “If you have 15–30 minutes,” “If you have 30–60 minutes,” “If you have 60–90 minutes,” and “If you have 2.5–3 hours.” This way, a judge with even 15 minutes to spare would hopefully be inclined to meet with students. I then made sure, through personal notes to and visits with judges around the country, that judges and court personnel knew about the civics initiative; knew that the FBA was working cooperatively with the AO; and knew that all the civics materials could be found on the FBA’s website.
The FBA next decided we needed a lawyer “on the ground” in each FBA chapter to ensure the program’s success — an individual we called a “civics liaison.” I asked Joan Brady, a career law clerk and former Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky FBA chapter president, if she would lead this group, helping to select and oversee all civics liaisons around the country. These civics liaisons were charged with interacting with the local federal judiciary to ensure they knew of the program and encourage participation.
Federal judges throughout the country quickly took us up on our offer and started meeting with students in classrooms and courtrooms using Rebecca’s materials. The results were immediate and rather startling: By the FBA’s calculation, about 10,000 students met with a federal judge in school year 2016–2017, a number that increased by thousands in the following years.5
During my year as FBA president, in addition to encouraging judges to personally meet with students, the FBA also engaged in other efforts to increase exposure to the Third Branch:
The FBA’s civics program has grown in scope and branched off into many different, exciting directions since its launch five years ago. The program has also supported several other civics initiatives in the federal courts that merit mention.8
In my courtroom, in Dayton, Ohio, we frequently meet with local middle school and high school students. All told, we met with several thousand students before the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020. During these visits, students met with one or more district judges and magistrate judges, as well as representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Public Defender’s Office, Probation/Pretrial Services, the Clerk’s Office, and the U.S. Marshals Service. We also provided a civics presentation and answered student questions. We often covered other topics, including the need for civility in court matters, the rise of mediation and decline of civil jury trials, the importance of grand and petit jury service, and career options for those interested in public service (including jobs with the federal courts).
When students could not come to us, we went to them. I have driven to meet with elementary school students, and the Dayton federal judges have held schoolwide assemblies on the Third Branch. Many state and federal judges throughout the United States now routinely meet with students in a similar manner. Judges dutifully continued this work during the pandemic. In September 2021, for example, FBA members met with more than 550 students from 12 high schools by video conference for a one-day civics event held in conjunction with the FBA’s annual meeting.
Many circuit and district courts now have a civics committee and/or maintain a civics website. The websites provide constitutional and other educational materials to teachers and students; the civics committees ensure that civics education remains an important part of the court’s work.9
All newly appointed magistrate judges attend two weeks of training sponsored by the Federal Judicial Center (FJC). Thanks to the efforts of FJC Senior Education Attorney Jim Chance, the FJC invited Rebecca Fanning, Magistrate Judge Kristen Mix from the District of Colorado, Magistrate Judge Shaniek Maynard from the Southern District of Florida, and me to present at these training sessions to encourage newly appointed magistrate judges to engage in civics education. Our discussion emphasized that civics education is not just something magistrate judges can do; it is something they should do. It is now quite exciting to hear that magistrate judges around the country are driving civics education efforts in their courthouses.
Rebecca’s commitment to civics education is remarkable. Working with the FBA, she championed the idea that every middle school and high school student in the United States should know the importance of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day (September 17) and Bill of Rights Day (December 15).
In the last few years, she has asked judges to hold naturalization ceremonies on these particular dates to celebrate these special days. One year, she worked with major and minor league baseball franchises to host naturalization ceremonies before and during games. Another year, federal judges conducted naturalization ceremonies at national parks.10
Court camps have been a model of successful civics education, and local FBA chapters throughout the country have supported these efforts. Two such programs stand out:
Eastern District of New York. The Eastern District of New York Court Camp — started in 2015 by Judge Joseph Bianco with the assistance of career law clerk and then-EDNY FBA chapter president Dina Miller and with the support of the Second Circuit’s Justice for All: Courts and the Community program — proved incredibly impactful. During the five-day court camp (the first of its kind in the United States), high school students participated in a naturalization ceremony; argued before the court; and heard from Mary Beth Tinker, the named plaintiff in the 1960’s Supreme Court school First Amendment case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.11 Campers were paired with law student mentors who guided them through the program and explained the constitutional significance of each step.
J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University. In 2017, national FBA leader and board member Rob Clark, from Salt Lake City, met with Rebecca and Judge Bianco to see if the EDNY Court Camp model could work in a law school setting. The resulting successful effort, now known as the Civics, Law and Leadership Youth Camp held at BYU Law School, was different in one respect: It was an overnight civics court camp. The students met with multiple federal judges, traveled from Provo, Utah, to Salt Lake City to argue before those judges in the federal courthouse, heard from a justice of the Utah Supreme Court, and learned about leadership from the BYU Law dean, among many others.
I am delighted that the FBA has continued its strong, national commitment to civics education, and I thank the FBA for doing so. The future of civics education with the FBA’s participation is bright, and I look forward to the next evolution: expanded opportunities for adults (see related article A Model for Adult Civics Education).
As anyone who has done this work will tell you, once you see a child’s eyes light up for the first time when you talk about justice, due process, and fairness, you are hooked as a civics educator — it’s something you want to keep doing and never stop. I thank Jim Duff, Rebecca Fanning, and all those in the FBA who gave me a great gift — the opportunity to teach civics to the next generation. I will be forever grateful.