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Legal Educators Say Courts Need Demystifying

PUBLIC ignorance of the courts is a continuing cause for frustration among judges, lawyers, and other law enforcement professionals, say legal education specialists.

"People are fairly uninformed about the court system and they are fairly intimidated by it," says Cynthia Canary, who works on the Commission on Public Understanding of the Law for the American Bar Association (ABA) in Chicago.

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"We need educational programs to demystify the judicial branch," says Kathleen Sampson, director of information and program services of the American Judicature Society in Chicago.

"It's just not as visible a branch of government as the other two. So unless you're a juror or litigant, you may know very little about what a courtroom looks like or what goes on in a courtroom."

Surveys on both the national and state level have revealed a significant lack of understanding of the courts, says Ms. Sampson. A national survey conducted by the ABA last December, for example, found that only one third of American adults are aware that the Bill of Rights makes up the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution.

Ortrie Smith, president of the Missouri Bar of Jefferson City, Miss., feels the public needs to have more information on courts, judges, and judicial elections. His organization commissioned a statewide survey to examine voters' knowledge of the judicial system last December.

The poll found that 30 percent of voters surveyed did not know the difference between state and federal courts, 78 percent couldn't recall any case from the state's supreme court, and 67 percent believed justice is won only by the rich.

Mr. Smith is now involved in a comprehensive statewide judicial education program, which includes meetings with the media, encourages judges to explain the judicial system to the public, and produces public-service announcements.

"We discovered that there was a need for more information and we have blanketed the state as best we can with [information]," says Mr. Smith.

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Other judicial organizations are working on public-education programs. The California Judges Association based in San Francisco sponsors a "Meet Your Judges" week, when judges hold public talks about their jobs and the role they play in the judicial system.

In Chicago, the American Judicature Society sponsors a workshop on the judicial system for journalists. By providing accurate information about the judicial system to the media, the program, called "Reporting on the Courts and the Law," aims to enhance public understanding as well, says Ms. Sampson.

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