Civic engagement and education - a chief passion for the chief, Christine Durham.

Author:Jasperson, Jill O.
Position:Utah Supreme Court - Chief Judge Lawrence H. Cooke Sixth Annual State Constitutional Commentary Symposium: The State of State Courts - Interview

It was September 2008, a beautiful fall day in Utah. Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham had just received the 2008 Excellence in Ethics award from the Center for the Study of Ethics ("CSE") at Utah Valley University. As part of the Ethics Forum and the Utah Democracy Project, the CSE had an opportunity to interview Christine Durham. It was a delightful opportunity to get to know her better.

We conversed about many things in the hour time slot that was arranged. It was video recorded, and eventually posted on YouTube. (1) Chief Justice Durham had just written an op-ed article in the Salt Lake Tribune; I commented on it. My comment hit a nerve in Justice Durham. The name of the piece was "Stronger civics education would aid American citizens and democracy." (2)

It was a good nerve; she was passionate about civic engagement, or lack thereof in young people. She was most interested in this subject, and it was discussed at some length. "We have in the last 30 years lost sight of that foundational mission of public education to prepare young people for citizenship." (3)

She was heartened by the engagement of young people in the 2008 McCain-Obama presidential election and hoped that students would understand that their vote was important. However, she opined that:

I feel very strongly that the degree of alienation, of opting out of civic disengagement that we've been noting for a couple of decades now in college students, high school students, and young adults (and the research suggests, by the way, that one's patterns of political engagement are pretty well set in college) that if you get through college without any sense of obligation to engage with your community, you'll probably spend most of the rest of your life that way. (4) She noted it was a distressing issue to her. We asked how civics education could be accomplished. She stated that the Utah Board of Education had put in place a mandatory course in civics. Social studies is now required in every curriculum.

And she noted that the pedagogy for civics can be very engaging, with mock trials, trips to the legislature, city council meetings, etc. More than ever, she opined, young people will get turned on by learning more about civic engagement.

This was not idle talk for the chief justice. She chairs the Utah Coalition for Civic, Character and Service Learning Board. It is an umbrella agency that involves over 30 different organizations including We the People and law related...

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