Program brings justice, civics to life

Florida Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis talks with sixth-graders at Tyrone Middle on Monday as part of the Justice Teaching program.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times\uFEFF

Florida Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis talks with sixth-graders at Tyrone Middle on Monday as part of the Justice Teaching program.

ST. PETERSBURG

It was order in the classroom as Florida's VIP judge came to Tyrone Middle School on Monday.

About 40 sixth-graders, members of the school's Academic Scholars program for high achievers, sat in rapt attention as Florida Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis lobbed questions about government, the judicial system and constitutional rights.

"What kind of skills do you want in a judge?" he asked.

Hands soared.

Education, experience, fairness and knowledge of the law were the collective answers.

"Should a judge decide a case based on how he or she feels about an issue?" he asked.

That would be no, most said.

Lewis and St. Petersburg attorney Jim Thaler visited teacher Rupert Warren's social studies class as part of the Justice Teaching program, an initiative Lewis began two years ago that pairs volunteer attorneys and judges with schools.

The teacher said he met Lewis a few years ago in Tallahassee and called him this summer to ask him to speak to his classes.

"We teach about governments all around the world and to be able to compare and contrast those governments, we have to understand ours first," Warren said.

The focus this day was the Fourth Amendment, which reads that people have a right to "be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. …"

Noting that the Constitution was written more than 200 years ago, Lewis asked, "If I'm in a motel room am I protected? The Constitution doesn't mention hotel rooms."

"What about e-mail?" he quizzed. "Is e-mail protected — it wasn't around 200 years ago."

Ryley Schlecht, 12, a fan of the TV show Law and Order, answered.

"Yes, because those are someone's personal effects," she said.

Caylin Harris, 11, said she couldn't wait for the moot court presentation, where students playing judges and lawyers would argue a case based on the Fourth Amendment.

Oscee Calhoun, 11, said he was thrilled to be learning about government from a high-ranking official.

"This is so much fun, and he's really teaching us a lot," he said.

It was mutual admiration as Lewis sat in the cafeteria eating a lunch of mixed vegetables, talking about how sharp and engaged this particular group of students was.

"They are smarter than many parents," he said.

Lewis said he has been giving civics lessons in classrooms since 1998 "to enhance democracy."

According to a Florida Bar poll, only 59 percent of Floridians can identify all three branches of the U.S. government. Another survey says that 22 percent of respondents thought the three branches of government were Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

Thaler, a volunteer trained in the Justice Teaching program, will continue working with the middle school throughout the year. He said he wants to help aid the understanding of, and strengthen the public trust in, government.

"If students understood the legal system better, it wouldn't be so scary," he said. "You are better off with a knowledgeable and fearless population."

Lewis travels all over the state training folks like Thaler for Justice Teaching — about 3,100 legal professionals are registered, he said.

And good news for taxpayers: The program doesn't cost the government a dime.

So how does Lewis find the time?

"I don't play golf and don't do other things," he said. "Teaching the children is my passion."

Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at treeves@tampabay.rr.com.

>>On the web

To learn more

For more information, visit www.justiceteaching.org.

Program brings justice, civics to life 09/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 2, 2008 2:41pm]

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