Civics Lessons for Presidents’ DayFebruary 20, 2017
Most readers of this blog may not know that my first job after law school was teaching and supervising in a Georgetown Law Center clinic called Street Law, which today is a global citizenship education program created by Georgetown law professors in 1972. I started my Street Law career as a second year law student teaching about government and law to high school students at Coolidge Senior High School in DC. Those students at Coolidge sparked my lifelong passion for teaching everyday citizens about law and government, something I try to do even today through writing and speeches.
Since the 2016 presidential election, a lot of Americans have found cause to revisit their high school and college civics and political science courses, and the debates we are having as citizens of the greatest free country on earth are important and healthy.
I have also found myself thinking about how important it is for people who work in government to revisit those fundamental lessons about how our system of government is organized, what the rights and freedoms of people are in this country, and how public officials must discharge their oaths of office and fundamental responsibilities. If I were to teach a version of Street Law for elected and appointed officials of government today, here are some of the major topics I would include in the syllabus:
- We, the People: WE are the government. We must never forget that. We elect officials to represent our interests but the ultimate power in the United States resides in the citizens of this nation.
- The Bill of Rights: Perhaps the greatest statement about a free society ever crafted, the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States is essential for every public official to know and to respect. The First Amendment is pre-eminent: without Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Assembly we would hardly have any of our other rights and freedoms today. This is an entire course unto itself, hard to address in this short blog space.
- Separation and Balance of Powers: this Constitutional principle is essential for our government to work effectively. No branch is superior to the other, all three — legislative, executive, judicial — operate as a system of checks and balances on each other. If one branch denigrates or tries to overpower the other, gridlock and resistance ensues. The Framers of the Constitution deliberately created this system to prevent the tyranny of the majority in legislation, and to restrain executive power. Of course, over the two centuries since Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton crafted this solution, the United States government has had some rip-roaring debates and conflicts over the structure — all to the good since the structure ultimately ensured balance and fairness for all.
- Role of the President and Executive Branch: in the United States, the president is not a central ruler, but rather, the person responsible to carry out law and legislation, and also the Commander-in-Chief of the military. The president may recommend legislation, and may veto legislation, but the president does not enact laws unilaterally. This issue has become more controversial in recent years as presidents have used executive orders and regulatory authority to by-pass legislative processes they believe are unresponsive or ineffective. A key civics and legal question is whether the increasingly expansive use of executive orders and regulatory authority undermines Constitutional principles.
- Executive regulatory authority is a particularly controversial issue as changes in parties in power demonstrates the political weight of regulation. Rules that the Obama Administration created — e.g., regulations affecting financial advisors, regulations concerning teacher education — were among the first rules eliminated by the Trump administration. Obama issued the DACA order (Deferred Action for Childhood Access) giving some protection to undocumented young people but the Trump administration is talking about eliminating that order along with more severe actions on immigration.
- Role of Congress and the Legislative Branch: Congress is supposed to make the laws, but in recent years partisan gridlock (different parties controlling different houses of Congress) made enacting legislation difficult. With both houses of Congress and the president now of the same party, more legislation is likely, but two large questions loom: whether partisan acrimony will abate or continue to haunt legislative processes, and whether and how the rights of the minority will be protected.
- Role of the Judiciary: Courts are responsible to ensure that the laws of the nation and states are enforced, correctly interpreted and fairly applied. Courts do not make the law, but over the course of history some politicians have accused courts of doing just that through the power of judicial interpretation and review of existing laws according to Constitutional principles. The famous case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803 established the principle of judicial review.
As the leader of the nation, the president of the United States needs to understand and respect the fundamental principles of the form of organization, roles and responsibilities of each branch of government. That does not mean the president is always happy with how the branches function. Almost every president has had occasion to complain about Congress. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was so unhappy with the Supreme Court that he tried to change its composition, failing spectacularly. President Richard Nixon saw his presidency really begin to unravel when the Supreme Court, whose members he tried to influence, ruled against his claim of executive privilege in the release of secret recordings that became known as the Watergate tapes.
President Trump is also speaking out against the judiciary, railing against the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for staying his immigration order, and denouncing Seattle Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” when he issued the first stay of the order. If I were teaching a Street Law civics course at the White House, I would caution the president on his language — the only way to start your oral argument before a judge is with the time-honored words, “May it please the court..” Calling the judge names is just not a way to win the case. Street Law 101.
So many other topics in civics and citizenship education come to mind — as a nation we should probably make a widespread national commitment to regenerate teaching civics at all levels of education as a powerful way to guide our current dialogues and debates about the role of government and future of our society.
Here at Trinity, I welcome ideas from students, faculty and staff about these issues. Please offer comments below or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.orgRead comments (5) Add Comment
On Lies and the Truths We Must TellFebruary 12, 2017
Fear is the most powerful weapon dictators have to seize and maintain their power. Fear preys on the most basic psychological needs of human beings to be free from physical harm, to be economically secure, to protect and care for our children and families. Autocrats generate fear through capitalizing on ignorance and spreading lies — particularly widespread ignorance of other peoples and cultures and lies about their ability to commit violence and take away jobs.
We Americans study the history of tyranny and exclaim, “That’s terrible, but it would not happen here!” as we congratulate ourselves on the robust state of our democracy. The experience of the last few months now exposes this once-confident boast as terribly naive and perhaps even dangerous as a new administration indulges in a remarkable torrent of false and misleading statements as a basis for policy and action.
The gravest lie we are grappling with at the present moment is the Trump Administration’s cruel and unreasonable war on immigrants — mostly people who are black and brown, and Muslim — Mexicans and refugees from central America, Syrian refugees, people from certain countries in the Middle East and Africa including Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia. Trump’s “travel ban” for people from the latter 7 nations is currently stayed by federal court order, but the executive order imposing the ban has spread fear and uncertainty among many people in the United States and worldwide. Outrageously, President Trump subsequently attacked the judges who ruled against him, and has his surrogates proclaiming that, “The powers of the president…will not be questioned.” THAT, my friends, is an invitation to rise in vigorous defense of the balance of powers!
Meanwhile, the Administration’s war on immigration across our southern border is proceeding with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids in cities across the U.S., leading to hundreds of deportations.
President Trump claims this is all about stopping terrorism, but in fact, the evidence is clear that the people being banned and deported are not terrorists (see this excellent Nick Kristof column on terrorists and guns in the US), and the claim that there is widespread crime and unlawful behavior in immigrant communities is just not true. But stoking fear about “the other” and waving the flag of national security were major themes in Trump’s election, and, now, “…the keeping of my campaign promise…” to keep his voter base enthralled and thus the next campaign is already underway.
The Trump Administration’s lies and fearmongering about immigrants are also a theme in the president’s outrageous claims of voter fraud in the election that he won. The evidence refuting this claim is overwhelming, and yet, as recently as the Sunday talk shows, the president’s surrogates continue to make this outrageous claim — but understand, the administration is not really trying to prove anything, just repeating the accusation over and over again is destabilizing enough in the way it sows doubt about our elections and reinforces presidential power.
Presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway, Trinity Class of 1989, has played a large role in facilitating the manipulation of facts and encouraging the grave injustice being perpetrated by the Trump Administration’s war on immigrants among many other issues. She is one of President Trump’s primary spokespersons, an almost daily figure on cable news shows. Some people admire her staunch advocacy for her client’s positions, and others applaud the fact that she was the first woman to manage a successful presidential campaign. But in fact, as is true of many of President Trump’s statements, her advocacy on his behalf is often at variance with the truth. Ms. Conway invented the now-infamous phrase “alternative facts” to defend Trump’s claims about the size of crowds at his inauguration, a thinly-veiled autocratic scheme to try to claim that the Trump inauguration drew the biggest crowd in history when, in fact, it was on the smaller side. Ms. Conway has been part of a team that thinks nothing of shaping and spreading a skein of lies as a means to secure power. Perhaps the “Bowling Green Massacre” comment was truly a mistake, as she claims, but she repeated that canard on three different occasions as an explanation for why the travel ban, an executive order that clearly discriminates against Muslims, was necessary.
These issues have real consequences for Trinity students, faculty and staff. In a recent conversation with some Trinity students, I was horrified and saddened to learn that some of our students who have DACA status have been hassled, frisked and interrogated at airports for domestic travel during the Christmas holidays, and others are now fearful of traveling within the U.S. to go home to other states to see families and friends, or for summer jobs. The climate for all immigrants has become treacherous. I wonder if other members of our Trinity community who are immigrants, regardless of status, have similar experiences or fears, and would welcome comments about this (email me privately at email@example.com).
As I thought about our students and the whole ugly mess that the new administration has made of life in the U.S. in such a short period of time, I could not help but think of Trinity’s Honor Code and our commitment to social justice.
The Honor Code says we must not look away from lies, that we must confront them and tell the truth as a matter of justice for the community. The truth of the present moment in our country is that the authoritarian impulse will prevail unless people of courage and integrity confront the outright lies and shady manipulation of facts. Social Justice says that our first and most important duty is to be of service to those who are suffering and in need, to be our sister’s keeper, to stand in solidarity with all those who need our support and capacity to stand up to injustice. Justice demands that we be advocates for the truth.
As I write about truth and justice, I recall the heroic example of the great Sister of Notre Dame, Dorothy Stang, who was murdered 11 years ago today in the Amazon rainforest by ranchers who wanted to silence her advocacy for justice for the indigenous people she worked with. Sr. Dorothy did not hesitate to speak the truth on behalf of the people she served. Her ability to tell the truth, to be an advocate for people on the margins. She paid the ultimate price for her courage. While none of us can hope to have nearly that much courage, we should pray for at least enough backbone to speak out about what we see that is unjust, to raise our voices for those who cannot speak.
I will write more about this in the days to come. I welcome your thoughts in the comment section below or email me at any time and let me know if I can publish your comments.
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Persistent WomenFebruary 9, 2017
Senator Mitch McConnell warned Senator Elizabeth Warren. The Majority Leader warned the Senator from Massachusetts that if she persisted in reading a 1986 letter written by the late Mrs. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then Senator McConnell would call upon the entire Senate to silence Senator Warren. Senator Warren kept reading the letter. #ShePersisted and Senator McConnell then used the Senate rules to get a party-line vote to silence Senator Warren.
What was so evil in Mrs. King’s letter that the gentle ears of U.S. Senators could not possibly hear the message from 1986? Mrs. King registered her opposition to the nomination of then-US Attorney in Alabama Jefferson B. Sessions to a federal judgeship. Mr. Sessions, wrote Mrs. King, “…has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens…” and the letter goes on to provide testimony on Mr. Sessions’ abuses of power to thwart civil rights and voting rights. Why did Senator McConnell object to the reading of this 30-yera-old letter on the Senate floor? Because Sessions was a U.S. Senator and old Senate rules prohibit Senators from accusing each other of bad conduct. Why was Senator Warren reading this letter out in public? Because Senator Sessions was President Trump’s nominee (now confirmed) to be the Attorney General of the United States. So, in fact, Senator Warren was not merely criticizing a fellow senator but was making a principled and urgent statement in opposition to the confirmation of the nation’s top officer responsible for the stewardship of civil rights and liberties.
McConnell gave as his paternalistic excuse for silencing Senator Warren the immediately famous phrase, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Immediately, Twitter reacted with the hashtag #ShePersisted and women around the world began to add their stories of being silenced.
(Sr. Julia McGroarty, SND, Trinity Founder)
One of the greatest examples of women’s persistence is Sr. Julia McGroarty, SND, founder of Trinity. We will observe her 190th birthday on February 13. Sr. Julia was 70 years old in 1897 when she and Sr. Mary Euphrasia Taylor began the work of establishing Trinity College. They had the support of Cardinal James Gibbons and Dr. Phillip Garrigan, head of then-new Catholic University. In fact, those men had asked the Sisters of Notre Dame to establish Trinity to relieve Catholic University of the “embarrassment of refusing women admission.”
Julia and Euphrasia worked fast, from March through August 1897 they secured articles of incorporation, raised money, surveyed sites and negotiated to buy land from what was then part of Glenwood Cemetery. But suddenly, opposition arose from some conservative male clerics who claimed that the whole idea of higher education for women was a heresy. The opposition to the founding of Trinity went all the way to the Vatican, and the courageous duo — Sr. Julia McGroarty and Sr. Mary Euphrasia Taylor — would not be silenced. They wrote letters and visited Church officials in person, and eventually they won the approval of the Pope and hierarchy. Trinity was founded on August 20, 1897, and the rest is history!
Imagine how many thousands of lives have been influenced for so much good because those brave women persisted, because they would not allow the men to silence them. Julia and Euphrasia took their cue from the founder of the Sisters of Notre Dame St. Julie Billiart who was similarly courageous in refusing to remain silent. When the bishop in Amiens, France, ordered her to be less aggressive in building schools for girls orphaned in the French Revolution, she took her group of sisters and moved to Namur, Belgium to continue her work.
We are here today at Trinity because Julie, Julia, Euphrasia and so many others would not be silenced, because they persisted. Today, we seek to educate our students to be similar women of courage, to persist in spite of opposition, to know that it takes courage to do what is right, to speak out against injustice, to serve others. We pay tribute to our brave founders through our own persistence and willingness to speak truth to power. Let us never relent.
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Trinity Nurses on the Hill!February 5, 2017
Trinity Nursing students and faculty, including Dr. Nikolaos Moraros in the back of the photo, above, took Capitol Hill by storm for the National Black Nurses Association Capitol Hill Day. This was an opportunity for Trinity nurses to meet other nursing students and nurses from across the country and to network with Hill staff and legislators on healthcare issues. Dr. Denise Pope, Trinity’s Chief Nursing Officer, says that this day is important because, “These kind of activities provide an opportunity for students to see policy in action and how powerful the profession of nursing can be in moving an agenda item forward. A large part of the discussion today was on the impact of repealing Obama Care and the havoc it would cause for the insurance industry, economics and health care system.”
We are proud of our Trinity Nurses for showing so much engagement with important issues in healthcare policy!
Do you have a story, a photo or video of an important event you’ve participated in around town? Send me yours on email firstname.lastname@example.org and I will include it on this blog.
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Trinity Stands for JusticeJanuary 29, 2017
(Protesters greeting international travelers at Dulles Airport on January 28 photo credit here)
Concerning the executive order banning immigrants and refugees from certain countries and Muslims, I sent this statement by email to the Trinity community this morning:
Dear students and colleagues,
Like you, I have followed the news during the last week, and especially the last 24 hours with a mixture of astonishment, horror and sheer outrage. Executive orders and policies that discriminate against and cause positive harm to individuals based on their national origin or religion have no place in a country that claims to be the leader of the free world. What the president of the United States is doing is an offense against our moral values, against any reasonable idea of social justice, and lawyers and judges will most likely prove these actions to be illegal and unconstitutional as well. Pope Francis, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, numerous individual bishops and religious leaders of all faiths have condemned the president’s orders that ban and threaten to deport refugees and immigrants from certain countries. Courageous judges have issued stays and temporary injunctions against the executive order on immigration, but sadly, many people already en route are trapped in a grotesque Kafkaesque nightmare of airport detention, interrogation, deprivation of basic human needs like restrooms and water, and shameful treatment by our own federal agents. Any notion that this executive order will make our nation safer is preposterous; in fact, this action inflames all those already disposed to hatred, and encourages previously neutral citizens of the world to move against the United States.
I join the Pope, Bishops, religious and academic leaders who have condemned the immigration ban and detainment of persons trying to enter this country, the specific ban on Muslims and persons from select countries, and in particular, the bar to Syrian refugees who are people in grave danger and suffering mightily. We cannot possibly say we will protect our own security at the expense of human rights for others. In the end, our own rights and liberties are also in grave danger.
For 120 years, Trinity has proclaimed a mission rooted in the Catholic faith teachings on Gospel social justice. These teachings demand respect for human life and dignity, solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need, responsible participation in civic life, and service to the most vulnerable in our society who are impoverished and oppressed. Social justice demands that we not remain silent in the face of immoral political actions. The Sisters of Notre Dame who founded Trinity and who still impart their moral influence to us would expect no less than our vigorous defense of social justice principles in the current time.
Our care for those who are suffering starts right here. If you or a member of your family or friends is affected right now by the executive order on travel and immigration, please let me know if you or they need help and we will do what we can to get you help.
As I have stated previously, you are welcome at Trinity and we will care for you and protect you whatever your immigration status, whatever your religion or national origin or language or personal situation. If you are undocumented, you are welcome here and we will do everything possible to stand up for our Trinity Dreamers. If you are Muslim, you are welcome here and we will defend your right to express your religion freely and without fear. If you are from one of the targeted countries, you are welcome here and we will do all that we can to ensure your safety. If you have a green card, you are welcome here and we will stand with you in the face of any threats.
We don’t know what will happen in the days to come. As a lawyer by training, I have to believe that the great strength of the American legal system is its ability to confront and stop tyranny. Remember that the Supreme Court ultimately shattered segregation and protected civil rights, and the same Supreme Court forced an authoritarian president — Richard Nixon — to turn over the Watergate tapes that led to his resignation. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld many other human rights. Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Title VII protecting women’s rights, and more. Despite the worrisome political climate and efforts to manipulate the legal system by blocking judicial appointments, in the end the law must prevail.
We are a strong and confident community at Trinity. We have seen difficult times before, and at each challenge we grow stronger and more determined to be a voice for what is right and just. Our most important work is to educate students who can be leaders of principle and moral value in the larger community. We do this always with a prayer for the grace and courage to remain strong.
I welcome your comments in the box below, or send them to me on email email@example.com
With thanks for your great commitment to Trinity’s mission in social justice,
President Pat McGuire
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