Law Matters: From the Three Stooges to the Three Branches -- It's Back to School

28 August 2006

Law Matters: From the Three Stooges to the Three Branches -- It's Back to School

The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Michael A. Wolff make up his August 2006 Law Matters column.

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s back to school we go. In addition to the three R’s (reading, writing and ’rithmetic – even though only one is really an “R” word), I would like to advocate the teaching of civics.

Why civics? Well, perhaps we should find it disturbing that a recent Zogby International survey found that more Americans can name the original Three Stooges (that’s Larry, Curly and Moe, for those who had a busy, intense or culturally deprived childhood) than can name the three branches of government.

The same survey found that 87 percent of Americans knew the names of at least one of the Seven Dwarfs (I only got as far as Sneezy, Grumpy and Doc), but only 39 percent could name one of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In our media-drenched society, where more focus seems to be placed on pop culture than on civic education, it is much easier for our citizens to know all of the judges on “American Idol” than any of the justices of the Supreme Court.

To be a well-informed and effective citizen, it is not necessary to know the names of the justices of the Supreme Court. After all, they are not like rock stars or television stars; neither Judge Judy nor Judge Joe Brown is one of them.

But it is essential for a well-informed and effective citizen to know there are three co-equal branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial – in both our state and federal governments, and to at least understand the role those Supreme Court justices serve.

Significantly, the Judicial Branch is referred to as “the least understood branch.” Its well-known roles include conducting trials for those accused of crimes, setting punishment for those who are guilty of crimes, and resolving a wide variety of disputes – including contracts, marriage and child custody issues, probate, personal injuries and so forth. In these cases, courts allow people to resolve their disputes without resorting to violence. These well-accepted institutions for peacefully resolving disputes are one of the hallmarks of our civilization.

The courts’ least understood role is that of protecting citizens from the overreaching of government. The genius of the American system of laws is that the three branches of government serve as checks and balances for one another. The least understood branch – the Judiciary – fulfills a vital role in upholding the rule of law in our democracy. It is worth studying.

Missouri is fortunate to have many dedicated teachers ready, willing and able to transmit these important lessons to the next generation of citizens. To help these teachers, The Missouri Bar has become the hub of some very strong law-related education programs, including an annual civic-education conference for schools. It also has excellent instructional resources, including lesson plans for a variety of programs and a free video-lending library for teachers, available through the Bar’s Web site, Missouri’s judges and lawyers across the state have been volunteering to bring instruction and programs about law and the legal system to our state’s classrooms.

Congress recently mandated that schools teach about the United States Constitution on Constitution Day, September 18. Much has been written about the “no child left behind law” that tests students in a variety of subjects. Civics, the study of our government – knowledge necessary for us to be good citizens – is not among the subjects covered. Perhaps that is why – according to another recent survey – that only half of our young people believe it is even necessary to pay attention to politics and government to be a good citizen.

No single program can divert our nation’s attention from its infatuation with celebrities and pop culture, and one day of focus on civic education will not be enough, but it’s a start. Last year was the first year the Constitution Day requirement was in effect. Many Missouri judges and lawyers took that opportunity to help schools meet the Constitution Day requirement. I hope their efforts will be renewed and perhaps even expanded.

Reading, writing and arithmetic are essential for young people to learn to function in our society’s economic system. Similarly, a basic understanding of civics is essential for them to function effectively as citizens in our democratic republic.

“Our Constitution is neither a self-actuating nor a self-correcting document,” Richard Beeman, professor and dean at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “It requires the constant attention and devotion of all citizens.”

Just as children should not be left behind, neither should the constitution be left behind … nor misunderstood. All of us – regardless of whether we are back in school this fall – should take an active interest in learning about and striving to understand our system of government. The future of our republic depends on it.


For more information, contact:
Beth S. Riggert
Communications Counsel
Supreme Court of Missouri
PO Box 150, Jefferson City, MO 65102
desk: 573-751-3676
fax: 573-751-7514
cell: 573-619-2849