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Legal community backs civics education drive

Members of the local legal community are trying to spread the word about the importance of a civics education as part of a national project called Informed Voters — Fair Judges.

The National Association of Women Judges launched the project in response to the decline of civic literacy in the United States.

According to a 2009 National Center for State Courts poll, 44 percent of respondents could not name a single branch of government and only 21 percent correctly named all three.

In a 2012 study by Xavier University in Ohio, 85 percent of respondents did not know the meaning of the rule of law; 75 percent could not answer what the judicial branch does; 71 percent were not able to identify the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law of the land; and 68 percent did not know how many justices are on the Supreme Court.

"Civics literacy really is at an all-time low, so we could all use a refresher on the basic civic structure," said Justice Joan Irion of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego, who chairs the national Informed Voters project.

"If we don’t have that knowledge, then the public trust and confidence in our courts goes down."

The voter information campaign began with a showing of “Fair and Free,” a film featuring former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has made civics education her passion project.

The local Informed Voters project is partnering with Lawyers Club of San Diego, the Association of Business Trial Lawyers and the San Diego County Bar Association, and asking members to go out into the community to speak about what judges do, why some are elected and where people can go to for impartial information.

"We're trying to remedy the information gap so that people feel confident in being able to educate themselves," said San Diego attorney Johanna Schiavoni, immediate past president of the Lawyers Club.

"This project isn't telling anyone how to vote, but where to find reliable information to make their own decision," Irion added.

One goal is to alleviate the confusion over why federal judges are appointed but most state judges are elected. And why, in California, appellate judges are elected with a “yes” or “no” vote, but trial judges compete against an opponent.

"I personally don't think elections are bad," Irion said. "They're good if we, as citizens, take the opportunity to learn and to vote responsibly."

Local organizers of the Informed Voters project are focusing on the current election cycle. Three California Supreme Court justices and 10 members of the Fourth District Court of Appeal are up for election and one spot on the San Diego Superior Court bench is being contested in the Nov. 4 general election.

The Informed Voter project also is concentrating on improving civics education in high schools and community colleges.

Nationally, less than half of eligible 18-24-year-olds voted in 2012, Irion said, and the United States ranks 139th out of 172 democracies in terms of voter participation.

"Our democracy is a fragile thing," Irion said. "Liberty takes constant vigilance and education."

Schiavoni researched San Diego County’s 2012 voter drop-off rate, which is the phenomenon that the number of votes cast decreases according to the length of the ballot. Judicial races tend to be further down the ballot.

Schiavoni found that in San Diego County in November 2012, 76.4 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the presidential race, but 23.7 percent of those voters did not vote for the open judicial seat.

In June 2012, 30.1 percent of those eligible cast votes in presidential primary contests, but, on average, only 28.7 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the three contested judicial elections.

"Drop-off is always a problem," Schiavoni said. "It wasn't as big of a drop as it could have been, but it's still disappointing that people don't vote in those races."

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