Teenagers presided over the Utah Supreme Court on Monday in a mock trial that honored Constitution Day and kicked off the Utah State Bar's new Civic Education Program, which has more than 200 attorneys and judges teaching a Constitution class this month to students across the state.
Just more than half of adult Americans can correctly identify the three branches of government, according to a 2005 report prepared for the American Bar Association. Sixteen percent of the 1,002 survey respondents thought the branches were local, state and federal, and 22 percent said the three branches were Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
Surveys like these that demonstrate a "pretty serious lack of knowledge" concerning the U.S. government and its Constitution led to the creation of the program, said Angelina Tsu, civics education committee chairwoman.
She said that instilling an understanding of the government in its citizens is critical.
"If we want our freedom and our life to continue, we need to have students who are well-educated about the Constitution and their rights," Tsu said.
After a Constitution Day celebration, Justice Christine Durham taught the civics program in the Supreme Court courtroom to a 12th-grade government and civics class from West High School.
She guided the students through the same lesson that's being taught across the state, which has students play roles as legislators, lawyers and judges.
"I'm not that caught up with justice and how it works," said West High student Olivia Giles, who wants to be a scientist. "Most of what I know comes from 'Schoolhouse Rock.'"
Students were tasked with solving the problems of a park in "Liberty City," Utah, where people were littering and making noise too late at night.
They first had to decide what laws to make to solve the problems, then they had to resolve a lawsuit that was filed against the laws they created.
Three students were chosen to sit in the justice's chair and judge the hearing after private counsel from Durham on how to conduct themselves and four students were chosen to represent their classmates and debate the case and the intent of the laws.
Chloe Kranendonk, 17, who posed as a lawyer, left the court with a "good" opinion of the government and the way it functions. She said the system is well designed, it's the way people handle it that determines whether or not it succeeds.
"If they know how to use [the government's functions], they can go far," she said.
Bryant Vazquez, 16, one of the mock judges, said it was "slightly intimidating" to talk one-on-one with a Utah Supreme Court justice. But he said it "felt powerful" to sit in her position for a moment.
He got a sense of how the law operates from the day's events. "It's a lot about wording," he said.
Durham told the students, "It looks like fun to sit up there, but it's a lot of responsibility."
Courts deal with down-to-earth, ordinary experiences, she said. "These are systems that are designed with solving human problems."
And in the end, that's what she wanted students to learn from the lesson.
"I hope what they [take] away is the impression that the law is accessible," she said. "It has relevance to their lives."
Survey says: Americans could use a civics refresher
>> 55 percent of Americans correctly identified the three branches of government.
>> 48 percent identified the meaning of the concept of the separation of powers.
>> 64 percent identified the principle of checks and balances.
>> 48 percent identified the role of the judiciary in the federal government.
Source: The American Bar Association, Civics Education, 2005.