Opinion: Civics Lessons Can Improve Trust in Courts, Democracy

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By Charles Bethel and Brian Rickman, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Efforts to participate in civics education can inspire us as we work toward a more perfect union.

According to several national indexes and surveys, confidence in state courts is declining nationally. In Georgia specifically, civic participation – one of the cornerstones for a healthy, functioning democracy – lags behind national averages.

As members of the Appellate Courts of Georgia, we’re concerned about what this means for our state’s civic health and are seeking creative ways to engage people across the state, students, teachers, and citizens alike.

Every year, we renew our commitment to civics education, and this year we ask the teachers and students of Georgia to engage with us and all the judges across the state to help teach civics to the next generation.

For the next 12 months, many Georgia judges from all classes of our courts will be participating in civics activities such as observing Constitution Day (Sept. 17), The Bill of Rights Day (Dec. 15), and Law Day (May 1).

Local judges welcome an invitation to help with a school lesson plan or speak or read to students. The Judicial Council/Administrative Office of the Courts has prepared posters, brochures and sample talking points for teachers to use as well.

We have reason to be hopeful. This past spring, Isha Gupta of Daves Creek Elementary School in Cumming, won 2nd place in the National Center for State Courts Civics Education Essay Contest with an essay about the 9th Amendment, showing not only engagement from elementary school students, but also an understanding that we shouldn’t take our constitutional rights for granted.

The Judicial Council of Georgia also held an art contest to celebrate Law Day, which is traditionally held in May, with this year’s theme of “Toward a More Perfect Union.” We were moved by the hundreds of entries of creative, thoughtful efforts to capture a visual of our democracy which made it difficult to choose the winners.

Several other initiatives are in the works across Georgia to promote civics.

Georgia Senate Bill 220, the Georgia Civic Renewal Act, was signed into law in May 2022, creating a bipartisan Commission on Civic Education. The bill’s purpose is “promoting and enhancing the education of students on the importance of civic involvement in a constitutional republic, the study of state and local government among the state’s citizenry, the importance of civic engagement and public service, and communication and collaboration among organizations in the state that conduct civics education.” I (Justice Charles Bethel) will be serving as the Supreme Court representative for that commission.

Furthermore, at the urging of our wonderful colleague, former Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Dorothy Beasley, the Georgia Judicial Council has begun a partnership with the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement and the Georgia Family Connection Partnership to expand the iCivics program (originally started by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor) in Georgia to better engage the judicial branch with students and teachers.

There also are many great civics lessons people can learn by engaging with the judicial branch, including court observations, mock trials and peer courts. At a recent event, “An Educated Citizenry: A Conversation with the U.S. Supreme Court Justices Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Amy Coney Barrett,” both justices spoke about the jury system as an example of where any United States citizen will do his or her civic duty as part of our justice system.

As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1831, “It [The jury] may be regarded as a gratuitous public school, ever open, in which every juror learns his rights, enters into daily communication with the most learned … .” This quote reminds us that jury service is a unique and awe-inspiring part of a democratic government in operation daily all across our state. Our efforts to participate in civics education inspire us as we continue to work toward a more perfect union.

If we can inspire and provide hope to our youngest citizens through civics education and assist our Georgia teachers in a small way, our time will be well spent.

Charles Bethel is a justice on the Georgia Supreme Court. Brian Rickman is the chief judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals. Please follow this work on Twitter @GACourts, @SupremeCourtGA, @AppealsCourtGA, @CharlieBethel and @bmrickman. For more information, write civics@georgiacourts.gov.

Read the story at ajc.com.