Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A civics education lesson in Florida’s constitution revision process

A proposal to enshrine civics education in Florida's constitution continues its forward path Tuesday, as the state Constitution Revision Commission takes up the item among many still under consideration for the November ballot.

Before the measure can progress, though, commission members need to consider a civics lesson for themselves.

During debate on P10, as it's referred to, commissioner Timothy Cerio — a lawyer who once served as Gov. Rick Scott's general counsel — raised a pointed question about the language under consideration.

"If I'm wrong, then I'm embarrassed," Cerio said. "But line 18, it refers to our responsibilities as citizens of a constitutional democracy."

The proposal read, in total: "As education is essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the legislature shall provide by law for the promotion of civic literacy in order to ensure that students enrolled in public education understand and are prepared to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a constitutional democracy." 

"I believe it would be a constitutional republic, as opposed to a democracy," Cerio continued. "I wondered if anybody has raised that, or if I am mistaken. There is a difference."

As defined by the founders, a democracy allows for direct decisions by citizens, while a republic has elected representatives set rules for the citizens.

The use of the two terms interchangeably has been the subject of national handwringing for years, perhaps heightened by the feud over the 2016 presidential election in which one candidate won the Electoral College and the other won the popular vote. [See Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig's 2016 commentary for Medium as one example. Lessig briefly sought the Democratic presidential nomination, but dropped out before the primaries.]

Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment law professor at UCLA, has written that the debate can simplify the complexities of the language. This column of his, in which he suggests the United States is in many ways both, gets republished almost annually somewhere.

Former state Senate president Don Gaetz, the sponsor, responded to Cerio that he was open to change, if necessary.

"I will leave that to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to work out," Gaetz said, jokingly referring to some of the other commission members who referred to themselves as constitutional originalists. "I am happy to have either word."

Staff did its research. As the commission's Style and Drafting committee returns to Tallahassee this afternoon to begin fine-tuning the proposals, it has an amendment for P10 that swings to the more commonly used term.

The recommended new version, submitted by committee vice chairwoman Carolyn Timmann (Martin County's clerk of court), reads: "As education is essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the legislature shall provide by law for the promotion of civic literacy in order to ensure that students enrolled in public education understand and are prepared to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a constitutional republic." 

It remains to be seen if the proposal, with either term, will get past the full commission. Gaetz has said he would withdraw it if it were to stand alone on the ballot, and some members have suggested the concept isn't necessary because state law already requires civics education.

The CRC must have all its proposals to the secretary of state by May 10.

Related coverage: Constitution Revision Commission advances proposal to require civic literacy in public education 

For more on the education proposals before the CRC, listen to our most recent podcast.

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