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De-shrouding the law

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The time has come to demystify the US legal system. Perhaps this could be a priority goal for the coming 1987 bicentennial of the writing of the Constitution. The idea would be to make Americans better informed about individual rights and protections and to bring more credibility to the system.

The situation appears to be serious. A nationwide survey on public perceptions of the legal system conducted last year by the Hearst Corporation indicated serious misconceptions. For instance, nearly half of those interviewed believed that, in a criminal trial, it is up to the accused to prove his or her innocence. The Constitution, of course, puts the burden of proof on the prosecution. A basic underpinning of the American judicial system is the presumption that a person is innocent until found guilty.

The Hearst survey also indicated that, of the three branches of government, the public knew much more about the executive and the legislative than about the judicial. Thirty-eight percent couldn't identify Warren E. Burger as chief justice of the United States. More than 40 percent had no idea who the other Supreme Court justices were.

Sadly, other public opinion surveys, including some conducted by legal groups , have arrived at similar conclusions.

Significantly, the public gets most of its information about the law from the media. And ironically, the credibility of the press is low - about equal to that of lawyers and judges. Chief Justice Burger jokes, but not flippantly, that neither wants to associate with the other.

What can be done?

A panel of lawyers, judges, public officials, and journalists met recently during American Bar Association conclaves in Las Vegas, Nev., to address the problem. Among other things, they recommended:

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