A Civics Education, Judicially Speaking
by Margaret Haywood
n a fall afternoon, a classroom at Denver Center for International Studies is abuzz with students. They are determining standards for when a juvenile can face adult penalties. Students eagerly debate age limits, the significance of prior records, and what constitutes a severe crime. After much discussion, a vote determines a standard. Then, students are presented three cases with three juveniles accused of crimes. It is up to the ninth graders to apply their law and decide each juvenile’s fate.
If this doesn’t sound like your typical high school experience, it’s not. These students were taking part in Judicially Speaking, a program founded by two Colorado Springs judges that informs and provides students with an appreciation for the role of judges in the American justice system.
When Judges David Prince and David Shakes would occasionally appear as guest speakers in Colorado Springs classrooms, they found that some students were under the impression that judges act as the "parents of community," as Shakes described it, who create law and rule however they see fit. As a result, in 2009, the two created Judicially Speaking to aid students in understanding that the role of the judiciary is to apply and follow the law set forth by the legislative branch.
They knew that to make the greatest impact they would need to move away from the "talking head" guest speaker model. Instead, in their program, students do the talking, while playing the part of the government’s legislative and judicial branches, and local judges facilitate the discussion.
Allowing students to role-play as the Colorado General Assembly and create laws for an exciting and relevant topic provides insight into the complexity of setting legal standards. Although not the focus of the program, Prince and Shakes discovered that the juvenile model is a perfect vehicle to grab the students’ interest.
Once students agree on the law for juveniles, they break into small groups. With the guidance of participating judges, students apply their new law to real cases and decide how to try juveniles involved in serious crimes. All of the scenarios are complex cases from the judges’ dockets and often create emotions that contradict the law. For example, students must rule on how to try a juvenile who shot the person who was physically abusive. After making some tough decisions, students reconvene to share, analyze their rulings, and discuss the importance of fairly and impartially applying laws to each specific case.
Finally, students use their judicial experience to discuss the characteristics a judge should have. Shakes said students consistently cite honesty, fairness, and education as important qualities. Students also learn about judicial selection and discuss the pros and cons of the various options used nationally to choose judges.
Over the past two years, the program has proven to be beneficial; however, it has not been without its challenges. With no budget, spreading the word about its existence to schools proved to be tough. Prince personally called schools around the Colorado Springs area, offering the program to interested classes.
Now, as interest and participation have grown, volunteers take a couple days, go to a school, and educate all of its ninth grade civics classes. Additionally, the program is moving into Denver-area schools, with Judge William W. Hood III leading the charge. As to where the program will go, Shakes wants to see how it takes in Denver before looking to expand statewide.
As Judicially Speaking gained popularity, Shakes wanted to show school administrators and educators that the program is not simply a fun way for students to spend an afternoon. To demonstrate that the program supports civics curriculum set forth by the state, he matched the Judicially Speaking learning objectives to meet the Colorado High School Civics education standards created by the Colorado Department of Education. He and Prince are now working with teachers in the area to integrate the program into their civics curriculum.
Judicially Speaking judges continually meet with teachers to find methods that will ensure students continue thinking about the lesson. Volunteers encouraged students to continue to learn about judges and how they are selected, inculding accessing judicial performance reports online. Judges and school faculty also are exploring the possibility of creating new Judicially Speaking programs. A potential program revolves around what the law does for a specific country. The new program would compare legal systems internationally and allow students to develop their own constitutional framework, said Shakes.
He said the best feedback comes from the students: "We know that we are doing something good when kids are talking about it in the hallway and later in the day." D