Is it a bit scary that only one in three Americans can name a single Supreme Court justice, but two-thirds can effortlessly name a judge on the TV show American Idol? Is it downright terrifying that more Americans can name all of the Three Stooges than the three branches of the Federal government? These manifest deficiencies have motivated eighty-four-year-old former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner to spend her retirement prodding government and private groups to reinvigorate and reimagine civic education. Her strategy is to link civic awareness to the virtue of democratic engagement: "We have to start with the education of our nation's young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do."
After fifteen years of being a criminal prosecutor, I'm still alarmed and disheartened by the number of prospective jurors--all registered voters--who don't know the basic roles of a prosecutor or defense attorney, what the burden of proof in a criminal trial is, or any of the other fundamental criminal justice concepts that should be taught in a junior high school civics course. Sadly, however, these things should come as no surprise given the marginalization of civics education in primary and secondary curriculums over the last half century. A 2012 Department of Education report reveals that three-quarters of the nation's students are not proficient in civics when tested at fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade levels.
Although the campaign to reprioritize civic education will be a long and arduous trek, every journey begins with a single step forward. My recommendation: watch the 1957 movie 12 Angry Men. This movie will give you a fuller understanding of the dynamics of the justice system and our democratic values. Despite the unfortunate historical reality that, like most 1950's juries, this one is made up of all white men, the movie majestically reveals how the human element of the individual citizen, flaws and all, is ultimately what makes the process work. The story explains why a trial by jury of one's peers, as mandated by the US Constitution, is so deeply entrenched in the American psyche.
The backdrop of 12 Angry Men is the story of a Puerto Rican teenager accused of stabbing his father to death. However, unlike any Law and Order episode, the first scene opens only after the case has been tried and submitted to the jury for deliberations. As the jurors file into a bleak, sweltering room at the county courthouse, all but one man is ready to declare the eighteen-year-old guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." Henry Fonda plays Juror No. 8, the lone dissenter, who forces the others to review and question all of the evidence. The power of the Fonda character rests in his ability to empathize with the others while at the same time getting them to question their own evaluations, helping them become aware of the personal prejudices that distort their views.
One by one, the jurors, with their unique personalities, life experiences, and prejudices, spill into the room and affect the group's deliberations in both helpful and hindering ways. There's the high school football coach who tries to lead but fails; the nerdy bank clerk; the arrogant, opinionated owner of a messenger service; the methodical, emotionless, buttoned-down stockbroker; the guy raised in the slums; the respectful house painter; the gum-chewing salesman who just wants to get to the ball game and doesn't recognize the importance of his role; the thoughtful and independent architect; the wise, elderly gentleman; the bigoted garage owner; the hardworking, principled immigrant watchmaker who feels great reverence for the American justice system; and the vacillating, dapper advertising executive. As the story unfolds, we realize it's precisely these stark and sometimes antagonistic qualities of democracy that guide juries to justice.
"The People"--the twelve members of the jury--are forced to rise above their personal biases for the sake of the common good. We see how the trial-by-jury process itself uncovers each member's personal prejudices and myopic perspectives. For instance, Juror No. 10, the garage owner, goes on a bigoted tirade in which he refers to the Hispanic defendant and his neighbors as "those people" and declares that "they don't need any real big reason to kill someone either" and "that's the way they are, by nature." During his ugly, racist rant, most jurors move away from the table, turn their backs, and essentially shun him. Even the stoic stockbroker finally orders him, "Now sit down and don't open your mouth again." Juror No. 5, portrayed by a young Jack Klugman, reluctantly educates the others about what it's like growing up in the slums. At one point, when the jurors are analyzing the angle of the entry wounds to the victim, he shows the group how someone would actually hold a switchblade and why. Juror No. 11, the immigrant, also enlightens his fellow jurors about US constitutional principles, including their right to a jury trial.
Okay, it should be obvious that watching a ninety-six-minute, black and white movie from the 1950s is no panacea for the civic learning crisis fifty years in the making, but clearly it is time to start planting some seeds. President John F. Kennedy said, "The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all." The most insidious existential threat to America's democratic way of life does not come from terrorism, immigration, or whichever political party you despise; rather it is born of the mindset that allows most young people to readily name every Kardashian, but have no clue who their member of Congress is.