Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

From Classrooms to Dining Rooms

In my August column I made reference to concern expressed by some great Americans who caution that we face a very real threat to our system of democracy and constitutional government. The concern is based on Americans’ lack of knowledge concerning their rights and obligations in our form of constitutional government, as well as the role of the justice system in guaranteeing their freedom and access to justice.

Following the writing of that column I had the privilege to attend, along with fellow MSBA officers and our executive director, the meetings of the National Conference of Bar Presidents as part of the ABA annual meeting on August 5th through the 7th.  At the plenary session on Saturday morning we had the honor of a presentation from Stephen N. Zack, incoming president of the ABA, and the first Hispanic-American to hold that office.  Zack also carried the theme discussed below into his address to the ABA assembly a few days later.

Lessons in Liberty

It seems that President Zack has first-hand experience of what can happen to a constitutional government if the citizens don’t understand and exercise their civic obligations. Zack, who was raised as a young boy in Cuba, explained that the way of life for the Cuban people was forever altered because, as a nation, the people did not understand their obligations as citizens when a dictator seized control of their country:

“We understood so little about what our obligations were. Everyone can tell what their rights are, but very few can tell you what their obligations are.”

Interestingly, Zach explained that the Cuban constitution and the United States constitution are nearly identical, word for word. He keeps a copy on his desk both in Spanish and English, “just to remind me that we thought the words were enough—and we were wrong. They’re only words.” Zack went on to explain:

“You know, when I was 14 in Cuba, the first knowledge that we were going to lose our liberty—that I didn’t understand as a 14-year-old—was the attack on the judiciary.”

Such attacks on the independence of the judicial system and the lawyer’s role in protecting liberty are not new. Consider the following statement attributed to Adolph Hitler some years ago when he marginalized the legal system to achieve his dictatorial philosophy: “I shall not rest until every German sees that it is a shameful thing to be a lawyer”

We have in recent years and months seen other attempts to restrict or eliminate the justice systems and courts in other countries. It is up to citizens, including citizens of the world, to protest such attempts loudly and vigorously.

ABA President Zack’s addresses to the ABA made the same reference as I had just made in my (then still unpublished) August President’s Page relative to U. S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (retired) who said, “The nation’s survival is dependent on its citizens’ knowledge of its government.”

Zack also reminded us of Justice Souter’s remarks when he addressed the ABA last year that two out of three graduating high school students, at least according to one survey, think the three branches of government are Democratic, Republican, and Independent.  As Zack remarked, “It would be amusing if it weren’t so tragic”

According to Zack, it’s our (lawyers, judges, and bar associations) responsibility and our obligation to teach civics to our fellow citizens. Zack is calling on lawyers across the country to get involved in an effort to bring back civic education “not only to the nation’s classrooms, but also to America’s dining room tables.” “We are uniquely situated as a profession to do something about it,” he said.

Civics for Citizens

The MSBA should adopt this initiative!  Our very energetic Civic Education Committee utilizes our profession’s unique knowledge and skills to educate youth about government and legal systems and encourage citizen participation in those systems.  They have established and introduced a wonderful program to Education Minnesota, the largest teacher’s organization in the state.  Through that program civic education study plans are made available to teachers for classroom use.

The task is challenging and they need our help. Wouldn’t it be rewarding to see lawyers in all communities across Minnesota engaged in the effort, assuring that education concerning the rights and obligations of citizens in our system of constitutional government is available to all citizens?

We will soon engage the Civic Education Committee and other interested parties to evaluate how we can enhance our activity to accomplish this initiative.  Watch for further developments.  I hope you will all, in the best tradition of our profession, participate in this important endeavor.

All citizens should have the opportunity to learn and understand the obligations incumbent in enjoying the rights of a free society as expressed in the wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt in his third annual message on December 7, 1903:

“No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man’s permission when we require him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor.”

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Terry Votel

Terry Votel was the 2010-11 president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. The division attorney for the Midwest Division of the Claims Litigation Department of Farmers Insurance Group, he practices in the area of insurance defense. He received his J.D. degree from William Mitchell College of Law.