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Our View: Teaching teachers about the courts helps us all

Two years ago, when the Building Industry Association of Washington mounted an expensive political campaign against two state Supreme Court justices, it left a bad taste in the mouths of many who prize judicial independence.

It also failed.

Apparently, voters didn’t want to auction off two seats on the Supreme Court. Actually, they probably wouldn’t have detected the builder-friendly candidates’ underlying attitudes if it weren’t for the unusually high-visibility campaign.

The fact is, judicial candidates are notoriously reluctant to talk about their personal philosophies, and voters are customarily at a disadvantage trying to track down helpful information when trying to decide whom they should support. For that matter, the public tends not to be well versed in how courts function, what judges do and why. That’s unfortunate, because the court system ultimately has the final say on many of society’s most contentious disputes and difficult policy decisions. Citizens’ understanding of the courts should go deeper than what can be gleaned from political overreach by a special interest group.

That’s one reason to be encouraged by an innovation that was on display last week in Spokane, where 25 high school teachers received a rare introduction to some of the judicial system’s intricacies.

The first – but hopefully not the last – Judicial Institute for High School Teachers was underwritten with fees paid by lawyers who practice in Eastern Washington’s federal courts. The participants spent two days learning and role-playing under the guidance of Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley and 9th Circuit Court Judge Richard Tallman.

What they learn will translate into a more valuable educational experience for their students. And what their students learn will translate into a more informed citizenry, and electorate, in the years ahead.

Federal judges are not elected, although state and local judges are. But even federal judges are chosen and approved by elected officials, so their qualifications become political issues, and at least indirectly, understanding what they do becomes part of a citizen’s duty.

But, as Whaley observed, schools don’t teach as much as they used to about government in general and the courts in particular. A leading reason for that is that school reform movements and a global economy have resulted in a curriculum that’s skewed heavily toward math and science.

Whatever the cause, Whaley’s institute is a positive step toward addressing an increasingly overlooked area. Frankly, we think teachers and their students aren’t the only people who would benefit from a deeper, clearer understanding of judicial process and theory.

For now, Whaley is hoping last week’s institute can be repeated every two or three years. That’s a modest but realistic goal. If it can be reached in the short term, an expansion would be merited down the road.


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