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Civic program teaches students the meaning of citizenship

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002


Imagine 1,200 students competing, not over who can hit a ball farthest or run fastest, but over who has the greatest depth of knowledge and understanding in our constitutional democracy.

Last weekend, classes of students came to Washington D.C. from every state to compete in the annual "We the People . . . The Citizen and the Constitution" national finals. Those of us lucky enough to judge the event -- a coterie of state Supreme Court justices, law school deans, attorneys and others -- walked away with an appreciation (if not awe) of the intellectual vigor of our nation's youth.

Think our education system is in tatters? Just come listen to sophomores, juniors and seniors -- primarily from public schools -- expound on this question: "Why and how do rule of law, popular sovereignty, and freedom of expression help a society like ours realize its civic values?" Or this one: "How and when did the right of habeas corpus develop in England and why does that right strengthen the principle of constitutional government?"

The competition is based on a semester-long social studies curriculum developed by the nonprofit Center for Civic Education. Unlike debate teams or other academic competitions, "We the People" requires the entire class to compete -- meaning the teams include the best students along with those who are struggling. Although the class learns the entire curriculum, for the competition classes are divided into six units with each readied to answer questions on a different aspect of our constitutional heritage. Judges hear the unit teams one at a time, peppering them with extemporaneous questions.

While most Americans think that the writ of habeas corpus is just a Latin legal phrase, the student teams understood its derivation, purpose and nuances.

Young people from Missouri, Vermont and the rest of the states told us how the writ of habeas corpus is a protection against arbitrary imprisonment. It is an order to bring a prisoner before a court so his incarceration may be judged to be fair. In England it was a check on the power of the monarch and was one of the first acknowledgements of the rule of law. Today it is used primarily by convicted inmates who claim their trials were conducted in violation of due process.

Knowing the history and modern applications is one thing, but these students rachet it up a notch. To our on-the-spot question on the tensions that exists when federal courts use habeas petitions to police the fairness of state court trials, one student defended the role of the federal judiciary. She noted that many state court judges are elected and may be subject to majoritarian pressures. Federal judges, she said, with their lifetime appointments are more insulated and therefore are rightly charged with overseeing proceedings at the state level.

A killer answer.

Habeas corpus has taken on new meaning since Sept. 11, and these students responded to questions on the interplay of habeas corpus and the government's policies during war as if they were presidential advisers. Here, ideology doesn't matter, just the quality of the rationales.

When asked whether the hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners currently held without charge in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should have access to habeas corpus, a number of teams said "yes." Many questioned whether the executive branch has the power to suspend habeas corpus since the Constitution provides for its suspension only in a section enumerating the powers of Congress.

Some teams went the other way, explaining that by situating the internment camp off U.S. soil and holding noncitizens only, they were beyond the reach of American courts. Others, pointing to the language of the Constitution, believed its protections applied to all "persons" under U.S. government control, wherever they may be physically detained. Without notes, almost every team offered case law and historical references to support their position.

And these are high school students.

The kudos for this remarkable program go to one man, Charles Quigley, the founder and executive director of the Center for Civic Education. Quigley has done more to advance student understanding of citizenship than any American alive.

So far, more than 26-million students have been exposed to the "We the People" curriculum. Academic studies on its graduates demonstrate they are far more likely to vote and actively engage in the political process.

This year, the team from Dobson High School in Mesa, Ariz., took first place. But to me, anyone who shared the experience of seeing young Americans fully understand and realize our founders' vision was a winner.

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