Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : December 2006


Lawyers and Judges Team Up to Teach Youth Importance of Judicial Independence

Judicial independence is a growing concern in Maryland and across the country. The judicial branch of our government is increasingly threatened by political entities, special interest groups and other branches of the government. Exacerbating these threats is the average citizen's lack of knowledge about the basic functions of our government, including one of its fundamental principles: the separation of powers. The separation of powers doctrine secures judicial independence, allowing courts to render fair and impartial judgments in cases without interference or influence from the legislative and executive branches of government. It authorizes the court's independent function, free of partisan politics, protecting the rights of all citizens. Fair and impartial courts safeguard the liberties of our citizens, disbursing fair and equal justice to uphold American freedom. Yet, only 48 percent of the nation's public understands the separation of powers concept, according to a 2005 American Bar Association public opinion poll. This survey revealed that only 55 percent could correctly name this country's three branches of government; 22 percent labeled them as "Republican, Democrat and Independent;" and 16 percent believed they were "local, state and federal government." To thwart this alarming trend, one of MSBA President Edward J. Gilliss' initiatives this year, in partnership with Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Maryland's Judiciary, is an innovative project where lawyers and judges team up and go into the state's schools to teach young people about the importance of separation of powers and an independent judiciary. In addition to school visits, the Bar and the Bench have developed materials and lesson plans to help educate students about our democracy. "It's time for a refresher course in civics," exclaims MSBA's President. "Our democracy depends on a knowledgeable public." Americans need to understand the value of the separation of powers doctrine and its system of checks and balances, and where better to start than in the schools? Gilliss stresses, "Civics must return as a visible component of classroom learning." "When Ed Gilliss first mentioned that one of his priorities was to encourage lawyers and judges to visit schools to explain the importance of the separation of powers, I was delighted," declares Chief Judge Bell. "A strong and independent Judiciary guarantees the balance that protects citizens against one branch becoming too powerful and the guarding against the potential for excesses and abuses of power. This initiative offers the Judiciary another opportunity to apply an abstract concept to today's reality for Maryland's youth and educators." Thus, "MSBA and Maryland's Bench are embarking on an effort to deliver critical information to 6th and 7th graders in classrooms across the state," proclaims Gilliss. "Together, lawyers and judges will present a meaningful message about the role of the judicial branch in our society. A lawyer and judge – real people – will have real potential to make a positive impact on our children – and their families." First, these legal experts will offer an historical perspective, explaining why our country's Founding Fathers fashioned this nation's government around the doctrine of separation of powers, writing it into the U.S. Constitution in 1787. They will show the students how these pioneers created a unique system that separated and blended powers so each branch of the government serves as a check and balance on the powers of the other two and highlight the tension between the branches to ensure that one branch does not dominate. The teams of lawyers and judges will also delve into the philosophy behind separate powers and demonstrate how this doctrine has successfully functioned as a critical part of our Constitution for three centuries. They will cite recent legal cases underscoring this doctrine and explain the significance in the context of our contemporary times. Working through MSBA's Citizenship Law-Related Education Program Committee (CLREP), the Bench and Bar's "Separation of Powers - the Critical Role of an Independent Judiciary in Sustaining Our Democracy" project will adopt a three-pronged educational approach: (1) teacher training workshops and a statewide conference; (2) the development of hands-on materials, including lesson plans, in a print and electronic curriculum format; and (3) student sessions featuring teams of lawyers and judges in the classrooms. Kick-Off
On November 6th, the first prong of this initiative was unveiled in Harford County when CLREP hosted a "separation of powers" teacher training program for 100 teachers (see story on page 5), attended by MSBA President Edward Gilliss and the Honorable Ben Clyburn, Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland. CLREP Executive Director Ellery "Rick" Miller was "very impressed with the depth and sophistication of the teachers' questions directed toward Judge Clyburn regarding the separation of powers." Additional teacher trainings will be held across the state. The second prong of this project, curriculum development, is currently underway and CLREP has already prepared and distributed a primer on the roles of each of the three branches of government and the importance of separation of powers for the schools. To date, "teacher response to this initiative is very promising," states Miller. "Teachers have already told us how valuable these materials are for units on the Constitution, 5th grade American Government and high school U.S. Government."
"The third tier is creating the opportunity for lawyers and judges to go into classrooms and/or for students to visit courtrooms," MSBA's President continues. "Our three co-equal branches of government and the concept of separation of powers are ripe for reinforcing in the classroom." The Bar and Bench are now actively recruiting lawyer/judge teams for school visits. This joint Bar/Bench initiative will culminate with a student/teacher conference on May 15, 2007, where participants will explore the many facets of the separation of powers doctrine. "When you train teachers, the impact will last for years," asserts Miller. "Each secondary teacher impacts roughly 150 students each year. While the teams of lawyers and judges in the classrooms have great impact on students at that moment, the long-range impact is increasing the understanding and knowledge of teachers about the separation of powers and the critical role of our independent judiciary."

"Our mission is to re-instill knowledge about our government in our youth to help address the attacks on the judiciary," asserts Gilliss. "MSBA is taking an active role in standing up for and speaking up about the importance of three co-equal branches. In light of recent challenges – real or perceived – to the co-equal status of the judicial branch, it is important to act now."
"There is an effort in this state and across the nation to teach students the importance of three co-equal branches of government and an independent judiciary," proclaims MSBA's President. "Lawyers and judges will go into classrooms and students will go into courtrooms for visits to see justice in action." Separation of powers is a hallmark and one of the foundations of our democratic government. "The importance of the doctrine of separation of powers and judicial independence is just as crucial today as it was in our nation's infancy," concludes Gilliss. "An impartial judiciary is the bedrock upon which our legal system rests." Attorneys interested in volunteering to team up with a judge and visit local schools should contact Jason Zeisloft at or (410) 685-7878, ext. 3028.

previous next
Publications : Bar Bulletin: December 2006

back to top