Law Day Brings Back Civics Education

{3:16 minutes to read}  Along with the arts, civics education has fallen by the wayside in recent years. But Law Day offers a measure of resistance to this trend. Sponsored by the ABA, Law Day gives legal professionals the opportunity to talk to students, from elementary through high school, about different concepts related to government and law. Students get to learn about the law and explore how those ideas — which can often seem esoteric — play out in issues they see every day. 

I participated in this year’s Law Day through the New York Women’s Bar Association and had the good fortune to be paired with Judge Lorna Schofield of the Southern District. Along with Judge Schofield, I presented this year’s theme of separation of powers to a group of smart, engaged students from Brooklyn’s Ft. Hamilton High School.

While one can view separation of powers through a few different lenses, I focused on the idea that the Constitution’s Framers intended checks and balances to constrain human nature. This led to a broader discussion about checks and balances as a check on power generally, and the importance of not confining power to any one person or branch of government.

The ABA’s prep materials suggested that we illustrate this idea with the 1952 case of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer, a Supreme Court case that emerged from President Truman's seizure of privately controlled steel companies. At the time, labor disputes were widespread, including in the steel industry, resulting in a steelworkers’ strike. Also ongoing was the Korean War. Truman was concerned about the havoc the impending strike could wreak on military supplies, which could have severe consequences for the safety and lives of U.S. soldiers abroad. He, therefore, issued an executive order directing the U.S. Commerce Secretary to take possession of the steel companies and continue their operation. Truman then asked Congress to pass legislation which would enable this government control, but Congress declined.

The steel companies sued, and the case wound up at the Supreme Court, which issued its decision less than two months after Truman’s initial executive order. The Court ruled in the steel companies’ favor, and Justice Black held forth at length on the respective roles of Congress as the "Nation’s lawmakers" and the President as Commander in Chief. 

The students, who were impressively prepared to discuss the case, had a range of opinions about its outcome. Most agreed with the Court, but about five sided with Truman. One student, in particular, was quite conflicted, and it was interesting to hear him try to reconcile his support for Truman’s actions with his deep convictions about the rights of private property owners. 

These students had a solid grasp of separation of powers and they articulated a clear rationale for their arguments. The experience felt encouraging, and the coordinators — both within the court and the students’ instructor — had prepared the students so well that it was easy to engage them. For any attorneys looking for a way to spread the legal gospel, Law Day is an encouraging way to view abstract ideas through a relatable lens.

Do you mentor any aspiring attorneys?

Dana E. Heitz, Esq.
Heitz Legal, P.C.

43 West 43rd St., Suite 214
New York, NY 10036