Long-standing Civics Organization Unites Bench and Bar with Teachers and Students

The Bencher—May/June 2022

By Rebecca Whitfield, Esquire

Achieving professionalism, ethics, civility, and excellence in the legal profession and judiciary cannot be accomplished by simply participating in American Inns of Court programs or networking with like-minded professionals. To accomplish this vision, lawyers and judges must live that vision in profession, in life, and in service. Thus, it is not surprising that many who believe in this vision by virtue of their Inn membership, are also involved in accomplishing it outside of Inn-related activities. This article highlights a long-standing civics program that embodies the “professionalism, ethics, civility, and excellence” of the Inns of Court and includes active participation and support from members of the Anthony M. Kennedy American Inn of Court, the Milton L. Schwartz-David F. Levi American Inn of Court, and other bar associations.

In 2001, in response to the September 11 attacks, Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr., U.S. district judge of the Eastern District of California, went a step further. He asked his colleagues to examine the recent increase in racially motivated violence toward Muslim-appearing Americans in the name of patriotism. In remarks to the bench and bar, he proclaimed, “The perpetrators of these evil acts do not know America or what America stands for. They live in the iron grip of ignorance.”

Damrell’s solution to this ignorance was to mobilize the legal profession to teach democracy to our nation’s citizens. In his words, “members of the legal profession have been chosen to prosecute and defend our fellow citizens; you are entitled to counsel fellow citizens on the meaning of the law; you alone are eligible to be chosen to judge and ultimately interpret the law and the Constitution for all Americans, including the government itself. If lawyers are given the privilege to assume such public responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution, lawyers therefore must become the educators, as well as protectors and defenders, of the Constitution and its values.”

Next, Damrell partnered with members of the Sacramento-area bench and bar to create Operation Protect and Defend, named after his call to lawyers to protect and defend the Constitution through civics education.

The organizers developed a program inspired by a visit Damrell and Joe Genshlea, Esquire, had to a high school classroom with the Honorable Anthony M. Kennedy, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The group visited a class at C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento, Kennedy’s alma mater. Based on this visit, the founding steering committee decided that each year it would bring judge-and-lawyer pairs into Sacramento-area high schools to teach a curriculum based on constitutional values. The hope was to foster a dialogue with students about constitutional topics and instill in them the importance of our democratic institutions.

Through this dialogue, students would also see and get to know their leaders, inspiring a new generation to seek careers in the legal profession. To this end, it was important to the steering committee to reach a diverse group of schools and underserved populations. As Ellen Wong, high school teacher and longtime Operation Protect and Defend Steering Committee member said, Operation Protect and Defend “is the most positive, or the only positive, experience students have with judges and lawyers. Most students only engage with the judiciary for jury duty or if there is a problem. The students get inspired by the judges and volunteer attorneys.”

For the past two decades, Operation Protect and Defend has fulfilled its hopes. Each year, judges and attorneys have engaged with students about controversial constitutional topics in respectful and meaningful ways, demonstrating the civility necessary for the free exchange of ideas in a democratic society. The curriculum, prepared by Operation Protect and Defend’s attorney and teacher board members, incorporates Supreme Court of the United States cases as well as newspaper articles, historical documents, and firsthand accounts of the context in which our modern law has evolved. For example, marking the 75th anniversary of the executive order forcing American citizens of Japanese descent into “internment camps,” Operation Protect and Defend examined immigration and national security law. The students read the Korematsu line of cases and firsthand accounts of people affected by the executive order. The students were then asked to compare this material to the Trump-era immigration executive orders, popularly known as “travel bans.”

Similarly, another year’s curriculum examining the right to vote addressed modern Supreme Court of the United States cases pertaining to gerrymandering and voting laws and then asked the students to consider historical accounts of voter suppression alongside recently passed voting and redistricting laws in light of those cases. This 2021–2022 academic year, Operation Protect and Defend explored the history and evolution of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms and its application in modern America, in light of recent and relevant Supreme Court of the United States cases on the issue.

These topics set the stage for a host of activities meant to challenge our volunteers as well as our student participants. After the curriculum is distributed, Operation Protect and Defend hosts an educational lunch (recently a virtual lunch) where a legal expert on the constitutional topic expands upon the curriculum, giving judge and attorney volunteers ideas for the eventual classroom dialogue. After the dialogue sessions, students are invited to further engage in the curriculum topic through participating in an essay or art contest. In recognition of different forms of expression and the importance of providing students with a medium other than an essay in which to engage with the curriculum, students can submit poems, paintings, sculptures, and dance routines. Each year, Operation Protect and Defend hosts an art show to display student pieces at a local art gallery.

What started as a dialogue among judges, lawyers, teachers, and students turned into a program requiring dozens of volunteers and numerous committees. The original steering committee, and every steering committee since, has been composed of high school teachers, attorneys, and federal and state judges dedicated to civics. An amazing network of volunteer teachers, attorneys, and judges have answered Damrell’s call to action in various ways—dialoguing with students, reading student essays, reviewing student artwork, sponsoring student winners, and congratulating teachers and students for a job well done at our annual Law Day award ceremony, which includes prominent members of the legal community.

I have not been surprised that fellow members of the Anthony M. Kennedy American Inn of Court, along with members of the Milton L. Schwartz-David F. Levi American Inn of Court, of Davis, California, and local bar associations have become involved in Operation Protect and Defend. All volunteers are valued and have a positive impact on our student participants.

We are achieving American Inns of Court values of professionalism, ethics, civility, and excellence by confronting controversial topics, promoting dialogue through civility, and demonstrating ethics and excellence by example. The effects of this simple act of volunteerism are far-reaching. Creating these positive interactions between judges and students leaves the next generation with an understanding and respect of the legal profession and its role in our democratic society. Even more, it creates within students the realization that their participation is vital to our democracy and that they should take part in our democratic institutions.

With such an amazing vision and volunteers, Operation Protect and Defend has flourished in its 20 years of service. This past year, Operation Protect and Defend reached 41 classes in the Sacramento area, dialoguing with approximately 1,315 students. It also provided over $14,000 in scholarships, funded completely by donations from the Sacramento legal community. The past several years, Operation Protect and Defend has expanded to deliver services to multiple schools in Fresno, reaching over 750 students in 2021, as well as schools in Bakersfield, Chico, and Redding. As the pandemic recedes, Operation Protect and Defend is bound to grow even more in the coming years.

Rebecca Whitfield, Esquire, is a senior appellate court attorney for the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District. She is an Associate member of the Anthony M. Kennedy American Inn of Court in Sacramento, California, and the Law Day Dinner Committee chair for Operation Protect and Defend.

© 2022 Rebecca Whitfield, Esquire. This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.