Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 3, 2019

Fighting eroding respect for courts

Outreach program seeks change in perceptions at earlier age

Senior U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier is not one to sit idly by and let a problem take care of itself. So, when he perceived a decline in the public’s confidence in the courts, it was only a matter of time until he rallied himself and others to help restore it.

Success was crucial. To Collier, the erosion of the public’s respect for the judicial branch of government was nothing less than a threat to the foundation of democracy in the U.S.

“Unlike the other two branches of the federal government, the judicial branch is susceptible to a decline in public confidence because we do things with the assumption that people will voluntarily comply because they respect the courts,” he says.

“We don’t have an army to make people do what we say, so if people lose respect for the courts, then they also jeopardize the ability of the courts to function.

“And if our courts can’t function, what kind of democracy would we have? We’d have a strong executive branch and a strong legislative branch, but we wouldn’t have the third branch, which resolves disputes – including disputes between the other two branches.”

Through a joint effort between the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association and the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Tennessee, Collier and those he rallied launched an outreach effort that would span the district and touch people at every level of society.

From students to teachers, laymen to business owners and regular citizens to government officials, they would remind people and educate the youth about the importance of the judiciary.

Causes of erosion

As a federal judge since 1995, Collier has had a front row seat to the gradual degradation of the public’s respect for the courts. This qualifies him to suggest causes for the decline.

The leading catalyst, he says, is the public’s relative lack of interaction with the courts. He cites a drop in the number of trials taking place as a factor in the average citizen being less knowledgeable about the judiciary.

“Fifty years ago, people served on juries. This allowed them to see how the court system operated,” Collier says. “It also gave them a sense of ownership. Juries decide what happens to people and they know they have to do their part for the system to work.

“People don’t have that experience anymore, so their understanding of the courts comes from television shows and movies, many of which have nothing to do with reality.”

Collier is not alone in declaring small and big screens across the nation guilty. U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough says the news media are partly to blame for the decline in the public’s respect for the courts, not because these outlets are deliberately spreading misinformation but because it’s not possible to portray the depth and breadth of the court’s work on TV news.

“The best judges say very little about their work publicly; they let their decisions speak for themselves. But finding and reading their decisions is harder than turning on CNN or Fox News and letting someone feed you what they think you need to know,” McDonough says.

“If you watch the news about what’s happened in court, every now and then, you’ll get a fair assessment, but more often than not, you won’t because it’s more complex than can be described in a two-minute newscast.”

The problem actually begins long before people are old enough to serve on a jury or become adult consumers of mass media, argues a local teacher.

Brandon Lowry of Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences says local schools aren’t including the judiciary in their curriculum. Instead, when it comes to teaching students in Hamilton County about the federal government, schools are covering the legislative and executive branches and then moving on.

“CSAS is the only school in Hamilton County that teaches an entire semester of government. But even we don’t get to the judicial branch,” he adds. “We spend four weeks on the legislative branch, three on the executive branch and then our seniors are gone.

“We need to educate our youth about the courts and let them know they’re here to serve. They do more protecting than punishing.”

As a result of these and other issues, a false impression of the courts has taken shape in the public’s collective consciousness, says Donna Mikel, a Chattanooga attorney who’s worked closely with Collier since his mission to restore confidence in the courts began.

Instead of feeling a sense of ownership in the judiciary, people see giant marble buildings that have locked out the world around them. But this could not be further from the truth, Mikel explains.

“This is your court. You can come here and watch your judicial system at work,” she says, adding that court proceedings and naturalization ceremonies are among the events that are open to the public.

“You might read about the Supreme Court in the news or hear about political issues related to the courts, but when you come to this courthouse, you’ll see good people trying their hardest to do the right thing.”

Collier agrees, saying, “We’re more open than the other two branches of the federal government. Within a day’s drive, any American citizen can be at a federal court and see what’s going on. You can’t do that with Congress or the president.”

Outreach efforts

Collier and his team started small as they embarked on the journey to boost the public’s knowledge of and respect for the courts.

In an effort to reach those who could reach the students, the federal courts and the FBA held two luncheons for teachers. The first took place in September 2016 and welcomed 11 local teachers to the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building, which houses the U.S. District Court.

The educators spent half the day with their hosts, during which they learned about the judicial system and the importance of teaching young people about the courts.

Collier was ecstatic with the results. “In our estimation, it was very successful. We were basking on cloud nine because we thought it went over so well,” he recalls. “The teachers were impressed with how effectively we shared our message and we were pleased with the number of people who showed up.”

The same group partnered with the American Board of Trial Advocates a year later for a Teachers Law School. The partnership enabled the court and the FBA to effectively promote the event, deliver a tried-and-tested full-day program prepared by ABOTA and provide the participants with continuing education credits.

If Collier was on cloud nine the year before, he was over the moon in 2017: The group allotted 30 spaces and received 89 applications from across the state; 29 teachers then showed up the day of the event.

McDonough says the heart of that year’s Teachers Law School began to beat as several of the participants expressed skepticism about being able to fold the information into their lesson plans due to not having enough class time.

“Some of the teachers expressed concerns about the pressures they were already under to get through the state mandated curriculum,” he says. “So, we sat back and watched a robust conversation between teachers who shared how to incorporate information about the justice system into nearly any class.”

Through their interactions with educators, the federal court and the FBA saw the importance of reaching the schools. So, this year, the group invited the students in every public school within the counties included in the Chattanooga division of the Eastern District of Tennessee to participate in an essay contest intended to convey the importance of the courts.

The group attracted students to the contest by challenging them to answer a timely question: Does cyberbullying qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment?

Four federal judges reviewed the submissions and in April cash prizes were awarded to the top four essays. The winner, CSAS sophomore Collin Matthews, also received an Apple iPad.

If the prizes didn’t convince the students the judges and the FBA had pinned great hopes to them, their presence at the awards ceremony did. As CSAS students claimed every prize and posed for photos with Collier, they were flanked by McDonough, the Hon. Shelley Rucker of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Lee, incoming FBA president Terra Bay, Lowry and others.

McDonough praised the students for digging deep into the issues.

“I’m sure all of you struggled with this topic. It couldn’t have been easy to be as thoughtful as you were,” he said. “But this contest wasn’t just about cyberbullying; we gave you a window into what the courts do. I hope you learned that virtually every judge who faces a problem like this truly gives his or her best shot at reaching the conclusion the founders intended.”

Matthews concluded there’s a point at which the U.S. Constitution no longer protects a person from the consequences of what he or she says. “Once cyberbullying becomes a serious problem, schools can use disciplinary action to deal with it,” he said during a discussion about his essay after the ceremony.

Collier encouraged the winning students to remember what they’d learned about the courts. “You’ve seen how the judiciary can affect your personal life and why decisions like the one you wrote about shouldn’t be left to the president or legislature,” he said. “The money you won won’t last long, but what you’ve studied needs to stay with you.”

Matthews promised the judge it would, saying, “We don’t talk much about the judiciary in class, so this was a good learning experience.”

Collier and the others have also been trying to get in touch with the general public. Additional outreach efforts have included letters to the editor, a civics website (connections.tned.uscourts.gov) and a public reading of the Constitution on Constitution Day (Sept. 17) last year.

During the event, 140 people took turns standing on the steps of the federal courthouse and reading enough of the Constitution to fill one minute. Everyone from elementary school students, to public officials, to passersby participated.

“It was a tremendous success,” Collier notes, repeating his positive assessment of every outreach effort. “One of the state judges stayed the entire time. He was so affected by the reading, he cried.”

These efforts will continue, Collier says. In addition to more Teachers Law Schools, another essay contest and a repeat of the Constitution Day event, the group is planning a video contest for youth.

McDonough would like to involve as many local legal organizations and attorneys as possible, including members of the Chattanooga Bar Association, the Brock-Cooper Inn of Court and SETLAW. “You don’t have to be a great salesperson to convince the public that the people who work in the courthouses are doing their best to be fair and make sure everybody is heard, all you have to do is expose them to it,” he says. “The more people are exposed to what the courts do, the more confidence they’ll have in the judicial system.”

“Our goal is to reach the people who don’t have information about the courts and might feel isolated from them,” Mikel adds. “And that takes a partnership between judges, lawyers, teachers and all our public institutions.”