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Judges Help Students Focus on Meaning of Constitution and Citizenship Day

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Federal judges from New York to California are creating online civics opportunities throughout September to help students honor Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, despite the termination of courthouse trips and classroom visits due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“Civic education is too important to postpone or reschedule,” said Judge Robert A. Katzmann, of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. He chairs the circuit’s Justice for All: Courts and the Community initiative with co-chair U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero. “Real-life civics education about the Constitution and our civic responsibilities is a vital public concern when it comes to maintaining a healthy democracy.”

Constitution Day marks the Sept. 17 anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia. Citizenship Day, observed on the same date, celebrates all American citizens, whether native born or naturalized. In recent years, the Judiciary has called attention to the Constitution and to citizenship by hosting naturalizations and other community events, often in iconic settings.

This year, Constitution Day and Citizenship Day is being celebrated virtually—as the Judiciary has moved many of its in-person, year-round civics programs to online delivery. In the Eastern District of New York, judges have reimagined their special occasion naturalization ceremonies and have created videos to assist teachers with delayed school start dates.

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The Eastern District of New York is taking a two-pronged approach that relies on classroom-ready videos.

One initiative, Constitution and Citizenship Month, is supported by a package of videos centering on the signing of the Constitution and the Sept. 28 start of the ratification process in the states. The ratification videos feature constitutional scholar Christopher R. Riano, executive director of the Center for Civic Education. A separate video in the package captures highlights from in-person naturalization ceremonies at iconic sites in the Second Circuit. The naturalization video, which was produced by the Second Circuit Library, includes recordings, photographs, and remarks by judges who presided at ceremonies throughout the circuit.

The other initiative, Bench in Your Backyard, is a series of videos on topics that include the structure of the federal Judiciary and constitutional concepts. A video also showcases careers in the federal courts and justice system.  Professionals provide a 360-degree view of the institutions when they talk about their roles, ranging from federal public defender to probation officer. One video in the package shows a naturalization ceremony at Sagamore Hill, known as President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer White House. The videos will be posted on the Justice for All website throughout the week of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, but they are applicable year-round.

Bench in Your Backyard started in 2016 as a joint project of the Eastern District of New York and the Federal Bar Association’s Eastern District of New York Chapter. The effort began as in-person presentations at schools, public libraries and other venues.  The content recently has been repackaged as videos for distance learning.

Videos from both initiatives are evergreen and will be posted on the Justice for All: Courts and The Community website. They can be used in combination with videos created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for the federal Judiciary’s YouTube channel and with resources posted in the educational resources section of the federal courts’ website.

“Teaching and learning in a virtual environment can be taxing day after day, so federal judges are doing what we can to bring a real-life dimension into civics education,” said Judge Joseph F. Bianco, of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, who is featured in one of the videos. “We like to engage with the next generation and give them a positive learning experience with the Judiciary.”

Other circuits and courts are going virtual in honoring the Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.

The Fourth Circuit’s annual essay contest showcases winners and their writings as part of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. During this 100th anniversary year of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, students identified barriers to voting and how they would protect and expand voting rights. The recognition ceremony for winners and their families has been moved from the courthouse in Richmond, Virginia, to a live-streamed event on YouTube, where students will read their winning essays. The live stream is scheduled Sept. 17 at 2:30 p.m. EDT.

“One of the best ways to honor our Constitution is to honor our young people, the future,” said Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory, of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, at last year’s event. “If they lose their enthusiasm, and their passion and purpose for our constitutional government and democracy, then we are lost.

“But I don’t think we are lost at all,” he added. “I think we are in good hands.”

In the Eighth Circuit, U.S. Magistrate Judge Celeste F. Bremer, of Des Moines, is spearheading a Constitution Day and Citizenship Day initiative that includes a resource package posted on the circuit’s website. The program and materials center on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. 

The multi-faceted package includes activities for almost every age group: A scripted mock trial for sixth graders and beyond; a series of artist-rendered suffragist bookmarks for a creative expression activity; and a reading list and discussion starters for students from grade school to high school. The mock trial is a discussion starter activity that tells the story of Susan B. Anthony’s conviction and fine for voting in the 1872 presidential election.

“The mock trial is a vehicle for teaching the impact of the 19th Amendment on contemporary life because it fosters discussions about how leaders of social movements bring legal issues to the courts,” said Bremer. “The program gives students first-hand experience with civil discourse, the rule of law, and how society adapts to changes in the law.”

In St. Louis, the pandemic won’t disrupt a tradition maintained by Chief Judge Rodney W. Sippel in the Eastern District of Missouri. U.S. District Judge Henry E. Autrey presides every year at a naturalization ceremony on Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. This year will be no exception, but there will be modifications, including social distancing, masks and no in-person audience. The event for 20 candidates is scheduled Sept. 17 in the jury assembly room of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse.  Voices of a choir from De Smet Jesuit High School will be part of the virtual program.

In the Ninth Circuit, federal judges in Sacramento have invited Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye and other state court judges to join them for a live-streamed event on Sept. 17. Judges, lawyers, justice system professionals, teachers, students, and others will convene virtually to read aloud the Preamble, Constitution, Bill of Rights and Amendments 11 through 27. 

Wiley W. Manuel Bar Association President Jasmine Turner-Bond will read the 15th Amendment to call attention to the 150th anniversary of Black men’s right to vote and Women Lawyers of Sacramento President Liz Olsen will read the 19th Amendment to mark the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Ninth Circuit librarians are inviting the public to share Constitution Selfies to be submitted for posting on the librarians’ website prior to Sept. 17.

“This event was inspired by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who encourages everyone to read the Constitution in its entirety, at least once a year,” said Chief Judge Kimberly J. Mueller, of the Eastern District of California, who is hosting the virtual reading. The Justice Anthony M. Kennedy Library and Learning Center is in the Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse in Sacramento, where Kennedy grew up and Mueller now presides.

Mueller had been conceptualizing a public reading of the Constitution for some time when she learned of a program initiated by U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier, of the Eastern District of Tennessee.  They exchanged ideas at the first National Conference on Civic Education and the Federal Judiciary in 2019. Mueller credits Collier, and the American Democracy Project at Middle Tennessee State University, with creating a user-friendly script for the read-aloud program.

The public can watch the Sept. 17 event on YouTube at 10 a.m. PDT as student actors from Sheldon High School’s THEATREworks in Sacramento open the program with an interpretive reading of the Preamble. 

“In preparing for the interpretive reading, we discussed the Preamble and drilled down into the students’ understanding of the aspirations stated in it,” said Craig Howard, the Sheldon High School theater teacher, who is the producer and director of the performance. “The students’ deeper understanding will be conveyed in the emotion and emphasis they give to the reading in this multi-part rendition of the Constitutional concepts that bind us.”

In the Eleventh Circuit, U.S. District Judge Robin L. Rosenberg will bring the virtual experience of Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions to the students of Santaluces Community High School in Lantana, Florida. On Sept. 17 and 18, she will preside over this skill-building program in the distance-learning environment. The event, conducted in partnership with local chapters of the Federal Bar Association, will launch the fourth year of the national initiative pioneered in the Southern District of Florida.

Also on Sept. 17, students in the Academy of Law Studies at the Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial High School in Miami, will observe remotely as U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom swears in new citizens at a naturalization ceremony. Students then will participate in a program sponsored by the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association.

The Constitution Day and Citizenship Day activities offered by federal courts help schools meet a Congressional mandate to teach about the Constitution on Sept. 17 every year. Learn more about Constitution Day and Citizenship Day and find resources that are ready for immediate use in the distance-learning space, classrooms, and at home.