President's Message: Suit up for civics in 2019

Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019 By MBA President Christopher A. Kenney
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MBA President Christopher A. Kenney

Many of you may have heard about the federal class action lawsuit in Rhode Island filed in November by public high school students and their parents against the state for failing to provide adequate civics education. Specifically, the complaint seeks a declaration that all students in the United States have a constitutional right to “a meaningful educational opportunity adequate to prepare them to be capable voters and jurors, to exercise effectively all of their constitutional rights, including the right to speak freely, to participate effectively and intelligently in a democratic political system and to function productively as civic participants in a democratic society.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Michael Rebell of the Center for Educational Equity Teachers College at Columbia University, told The New York Times: “Our real hope for reinvigorating our democratic institutions comes with the young people and the next generation. … What we’re really seeking is for the courts, especially the Supreme Court, to take a strong stance on getting back to first principles on what the school system was established for in the United States.”

The Rhode Island lawsuit faces an uphill battle to be sure. But whether or not it is successful, the fact that students and their parents took this extraordinary step shows that there is a hunger for civics education. It’s a hunger the MBA intends to feed this year, and we could use your help.

Fortunately, here in Massachusetts we don’t need a lawsuit to compel better civics education thanks to a law passed last summer that mandates improved civics education in public high schools by 2020. The law was many years in the making, and the MBA has long supported legislative efforts to bolster civics education in the commonwealth.

Now we’re looking to harness our members’ ingrained expertise in this area through some programs and initiatives we have planned over the next few months.  
As I announced earlier this year, the MBA has begun a partnership with iCivics, a digital learning platform founded by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, to help implement the new Massachusetts law. To start, we’re holding a Civics Bee fundraiser for iCivics on Feb. 13, at the MBA’s Boston office. This trivia-focused event will pit teams of four against each other as they answer questions related to local, state and federal government.

This will be an incredibly fun and rewarding evening. I encourage all MBA members, including law students, to consider entering a team with your firms, organizations, schools or close friends. The money raised by this event will go directly to iCivics to aid its mission of helping young people learn how government works by experiencing it.

For those seeking to make more of a direct impact on civics education in Massachusetts, I encourage you to take part in our Law Day project throughout the month of May, when we’ll send lawyers to schools around the commonwealth to give a presentation on civics and the law. One of my fellow MBA officers, MBA Secretary Grace V.B. Garcia, is chairing the MBA’s efforts, and we will share more information on this project, including how to get involved, later this month.

We’re also planning to continue our annual Law Day efforts aimed at educating seniors of their elder-law-related rights by sending lawyers to senior centers around Massachusetts throughout the month of May and into the summer months. You can find more information about this project and how to get involved on the Elder Law Education portion of our website. 

Another project I’m very excited about is our upcoming Trial Academy. The main goal of this initiative is to have new litigators learn critical trial skills from veteran trial lawyers — skills many are missing out on because of the dwindling numbers of cases that actually go to trial. Importantly, we designed the Trial Academy to have a built-in public-interest component that will aid those less fortunate. Through a partnership with the courts, Trial Academy participants will represent on a limited basis (i.e., Limited Assistance Representation, or “LAR”) unrepresented litigants during their day in court. We’ll also have more info to share about this program in the weeks ahead.

The events of the last few months have brought civics to the forefront in Massachusetts and around the country, and prompted important discussions about our rights and responsibilities as citizens. As lawyers, we’re in the unique position to take a leadership role in civics education due to our specialized schooling and knowledge of the court system. In 2019, our work at the MBA in this area begins in earnest. I invite you to join us.