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‘American democracy is in peril’: RI federal judge dismisses civics lawsuit

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Rhode Island federal judge on Tuesday offered a harsh rebuke of politics and civics in the United States, writing in a new decision that “American democracy is in peril.”

U.S. District Judge William Smith dismissed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit involving a group of unnamed students who sued state leaders for depriving them of what they argued was their constitutional right to an effective civics education.

He cited several decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that have sent “mixed messages about education over the decades,” ultimately concluding, “while education as a civic ideal is no doubt deeply rooted in our country’s history, there is no right to civics education in the Constitution.”

But Smith used the 55-page decision as a call for change.

“This case does not represent a wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process, but rather a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we — the generation currently in charge — are not stewarding well,” he wrote. “We would do well to pay attention to their plea.”

Smith, who was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2002, said the lawsuit is “a civics lesson all its own, one worth contemplating as well in these fraught times.”

“We are a society that is polarized as much as any time in our history; we live in echo-chambers of cable television news shows, Twitter feeds, and YouTube videos,” Smith wrote. “And political leaders, driven further and further to their extremes by their increasingly extremist constituencies, appear more willing to break through the soft guardrails of democracy to achieve their ends.”

Smith wrote that the survival of democracy “will not happen just because we want it to; we will have to work for it.”

“Struggling not only against the haunting ghosts of our nation’s past, but against new forces of illiberalism, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism — from social media trolls, to conspiracy theories like Q-Anon, to Russian interference in our election, and even the siren call of nostalgia for the good old days,” Smith wrote.

Shedding light on why he issued such a scathing rebuke of the state of politics and democracy in America, Smith wrote, “as the third branch, with neither the power of the purse nor an army to compel compliance, the judiciary relies entirely upon the public’s respect for our democratic institutions and the rule of law. When that respect crumbles, the guardrails fail and democracy dies.”

He said while it was an “ambitious lawsuit,” he lauded the plaintiffs for shining a light on a critical problem he pleaded with policymakers to address.

“Plaintiffs should be commended for bringing this case,” Smith write. “It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies. The Court cannot provide the remedy Plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the Court adds its voice to Plaintiffs’ in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.”

The lawsuit was filed by Rhode Island Center for Justice on behalf of 14 unnamed students in November 2018. It named Gov. Gina Raimondo, the state’s Education Department, the General Assembly and the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education as defendants.

At the center of the legal reasoning to the Smith’s decision was a 1973 Supreme Court decision — San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez – in which a majority of justices found education “is not among the rights afforded explicit protection under our Federal Constitution.”

“So, while it is clearly desirable — and even essential, as I argue in the Introduction — for citizens to have a deeper grasp of our civic responsibilities and governing mechanisms and American history, this is not something the U.S. Constitution contemplates or mandates,” Smith wrote.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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