around the bar
August 3, 2009

Souter Challenges ABA: ‘Make Civic Education Real Again’

David H. Souter, retired as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, challenged ABA members at the Opening Assembly for the 2009 Annual Meeting to “take on the job of making American civic education real again.”

Also speaking at the Opening Assembly were ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr., and Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn.  President Barack Obama addressed the program in a video message.  

When more than two-thirds of Americans cannot even name the three branches of government, they cannot speak up for an independent judiciary, Souter said.  “This is something to worry about” and there is “a risk to constitutional government,” he warned.  Souter said he learned the statistic in a conference convened in 2006 by retired Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Associate Justice Stephen Breyer.

Souter urged the ABA to create working groups in each state to assess the level of civic education of the populace and develop strategies to improve it, and he asked each member of the audience to personally participate in the efforts. 

“The ABA has to make a substantial effort,” said Souter, asking “What better work could you do?”

He contrasted the lack of public understanding of the workings of government today with his own civic development as a child growing up in Weare, N.H.  He attended yearly town meetings with his parents, watching community leaders decide issues of local governance, differentiating between legislative and executive functions and between township responsibilities and those of the state.  A respected citizen who had been elected by township residents lead the meeting with fairness and recognition of all viewpoints, in a judicial capacity, he said.  When he reached the ninth grade, the formal civics class taught in school was easy to understand, and not one of his classmates would have failed to identify the branches of government, he added.

The reality that a “majority of the public is unaware of the structure of government,” and fails to understand the notion of separation of powers, is the “root problem we have to face about judicial independence,” Souter said. 

“Civic education must be raised to a new power,” he concluded.  It is “the birthright of every American.”

  • For video of Souter’s speech, click here
Learn More About:  Annual Meeting 2009