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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2007

Back to civics class

RETIRED U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spoke to the nation's governors in Michigan about the vital role education plays in maintaining our independent judiciary. She is certainly right that students need to better appreciate the separation of powers. But what she could have added was that this is a lesson most adults, members of Congress, occupants of the White House, and the very judiciary itself also need to review.

Students today know more about Hollywood and technology than they know about government. Justice O'Connor admits to the "guilty pleasure" of enjoying the Three Stooges. But we join her in mourning recent survey findings that U.S. teenagers are more likely to know the Stooges' names than the three branches of government.

Frankly, we're afraid that the same goes for their parents. Schools do little to teach civics, and civic responsibility, anymore. All lessons about their government are packed into a single semester rather than built upon and reinforced over the years. What was once a thorough grounding in citizenship has evolved into "social studies" that do little to prepare students for the real world, or the responsibilities of citizenship.

Justice O'Connor's remarks in Michigan were directed against the failings of public education. But we also need to be concerned about the continuing education of us all. Specifically, it would be a good idea for some members of the Bush Administration to better understand the importance of the separation of powers and of judicial independence.

Since the 1960s, there have been a number of movements against judges, and especially against those judges accused of trying to "legislate from the bench." Some movements include attempts to oversee rulings and to do away with judicial immunity.

Justice O'Connor, the high court's first female justice, was appointed in 1981 by President Reagan. Not surprisingly, she has no use for those who would attack or even clip the wings of the judiciary. She denounced the "JAIL 4 Judges" movement in a Wall Street Journal commentary in September. A "judicial accountability initiative law" failed last fall in South Dakota.

But the issue has not gone away. And the cause of judicial independence hasn't been helped by the high court's newest members. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito - both Bush appointees - took their court seats with an apparently unabashed determination to reshape society into their own, far-right image.

Judges must be allowed to do their jobs without fear of retribution from the legislative or executive branches of government, and without fear of intimidation or influence from any individual or political, corporate, or interest group. And everyone in this nation should understand that by the time they leave the sixth grade.

Frightened judges can't properly do their jobs. "In these challenging and difficult times, we must recommit ourselves to maintaining the independent judiciary that the Framers sought to establish," Justice O'Connor commented last fall.

A lot more of us need to understand that. Democracy, as Winston Churchill said, is the worst form of government - save for all the others that have ever been tried. That applies to an independent judiciary.

"What kind of government have you given us?" Benjamin Franklin was asked when the Constitution was being written. "A republic, if you can keep it," he reportedly replied. Keeping citizens educated and judges truly independent is the best way to ensure that what the Founding Fathers gave us is never really lost.



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