Fresh Ideas: A warning from a former Supreme Court justice

Four years ago, in an interview conducted by PBS foreign correspondent Margaret Warner, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter of New Hampshire — a man who doesn’t seek attention — spoke on the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution and how “it has kept up with the times.”

Former Justice Souter was appointed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 and served until 2009, when he retired. Described by friends as a private, self-effacing, and frugal man, in his private life he was known for doing his own home repairs, for bringing his own lunch to the office, and for spending his summers hiking the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Not surprisingly, he’s a voracious reader of law, history, philosophy, and literature. In fact, after he retired and moved back to the family farm where he had lived since age 11, he finally felt forced to give it up because it wasn’t structurally sound enough to hold his thousands of books.

Some may remember him for his opposition to having cameras in the courtroom during oral arguments because he believed questions would be taken out of context by the media, thus politicizing the proceedings themselves.

The warning Justice Souter gave to his audience four years ago, namely what he feared most about America’s future was NOT foreign invasion or a military coup, but a “pervasive civic ignorance,” a warning that’s especially applicable today. Let me be specific.

According to Justice Souter (watch the video: Google “Margaret Warner’s interview of Justice David Souter four years ago”), two-thirds of Americans today don’t even know there are three branches of government. Not knowing how our government works means we don’t know who to hold responsible for whatever we think isn’t working.

Here’s Justice Souter: “And when the problems get bad enough — another serious terrorist attack, another financial meltdown — some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power, and I will solve this problem.’ That is how the Roman republic fell ... That is how democracy dies. And if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge, that is what you should worry about at night.”

The United States is a republic, so it’s worth examining why the Republic of Rome fell. Power lay in the hands of a select few. Only the rich could become magistrates and the votes of the wealthy had more weight than of others. Tax collectors were corrupt, keeping tax monies for themselves. There was a dysfunctional, unfair class system and the leaders of it turned people against each other.

A republic relies on people who believe in civic virtue: that we work to help others and to promote common welfare. To do this requires a government — representatives of the people who have been elected to achieve the common good, to help everyone, not just one or a few favored people. The people of a republic also believe the laws made by the representatives will be fair. If not, they elect others to represent them.

We know the phrase “knowledge is power.” In these atypical times, the more knowledge we have, the more powerful we can be. To learn more about civic virtue, access the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization. It has been our heritage to learn civic virtue in our homes, houses of worship, schools. But we can learn on our own, too. Let’s move beyond being an ill-informed, but opinionated public.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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