Chicago-Kent's Constitutional Democracy Project Lets Teens Become Justices for a Day

Friday, March 12, 2021
Constitutional Democracy Project
Chicago-Kent College of Law associate dean Christopher Schmidt leads discussion during a Youth Decide event in 2017.

About five dozen high school students crowded onto Zoom to debate the case.

If you were interested in the United States Constitution, there was lots to talk about: search and seizure, probable cause, hot pursuit….

“It’s just a great case for them. And the Supreme Court is looking at it, so pretty cool,” said Jodi Blazek, who virtually chaperoned her seven students—ranging from freshmen to seniors—to the Youth Decide event at Chicago-Kent College of Law on March 6.

“It’s almost like being a law student for the day. It’s an opportunity we wouldn’t be able to get anywhere,” said Blazek, who teaches criminal and civil law at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Hers was one of 10 high schools that sent students to the event put on by the Constitutional Democracy Project, which aims to teach high school students about the Constitution by simply doing what U.S. Supreme Court justices do: debate it.

“The program is fantastic. Years ago, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Christina George, who teaches a constitutional law class at Lyons Township High School, from which five students attended. This will now be her third year encouraging students to participate in the project, where students are guided by Chicago-Kent professors and law students, with whom they also have lunch. In this case, virtually.

“As a teacher, you’re in a passive role. When I got downtown [in 2018, before the pandemic] they handed me a folder and directed teachers to the back row, and I realized how much of a focus was on the students. They can pretty much forget you’re there. As a teacher I thought that was pretty cool,” George said.

Alejandra Rodriguez, a Lyons Township senior who participated this year for the first time, wants to major in political science and eventually become a lawyer. The day before the Youth Decide event, she didn’t know what to expect.

“I hope to learn more about how these types of cases are taken constitutionally, and the experience of how we interpret laws. That will be super beneficial to me,” she said.

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As the event began, Chicago-Kent law professors and associate deans Carolyn Shapiro and Christopher Schmidt guided students on a debate of Lange v. California.

The current U.S. Supreme Court case examines whether a person a police officer “has probable cause to believe has committed a misdemeanor categorically qualifies as an exigent circumstance sufficient to allow the officer to enter a home without a warrant,” the court’s blog notes.

The case involves a California Highway Patrol officer who followed a driver who was playing loud music and honking his horn. After the officer turned on his squad car’s lights, the driver pulled into the garage of his house and started closing his garage door. But the officer put out his foot, stopped the garage door, and entered the house, where he collected evidence leading to a drunk driving arrest.

“Exigent circumstances,” which often relate to immediate harm or concerns about the destruction of evidence, allow officers to act without a warrant and enter areas typically protected by the Fourth Amendment, which covers the right to be secure in one’s home against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Warrants are important because they allow law enforcement more preparation, and also to respect the privacy of citizens,” said Rodriguez. “At the same time, there is reasonable suspicion. It’s definitely an interesting question.”

The professors fielded questions from students before splitting them into groups of “supreme court justices” to debate the case among themselves. At the end of the day, the “courts” arrived at their own verdicts. Some minds had been changed. In the Lange case, the large majority sided against the state.

“I think applying the rule so liberally…is contrary to the idea of the Fourth Amendment,” one student noted in the larger discussion.

“Playing loud music and honking your horn—I don’t think is enough to qualify for a misdemeanor. He was already on the property and [the officer] didn’t have a warrant, so the evidence found on the property shouldn’t be taken into account,” another put in.

“I felt that ruling for [the accused] would set a precedent that anyone speeding would essentially be able to run to their home to escape,” another student countered.

Blazek, the Hersey High School teacher, added, “It’s always interesting to me to see the split. That’s what I like most about these trips. Students don’t agree but they still respect someone else’s opinion, it’s something I’ve seen [Chicago-Kent] emphasize.”

After the event, Rodriguez—who sided against the state—said, “I enjoyed it a lot, it was a really good learning experience. There was a lot of good discussion, and points were raised that I had never thought of before.”

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Those organizing the program at Chicago-Kent say they’ve seen a growing need for civics education at the high school level for some time.

“They stopped teaching civics in school, and it wasn’t until recently, over the last five years, that they brought it back. You look around you now, you see what happens,” said Dee Runaas, the Constitutional Democracy Project’s director, referring to disinformation during the most recent presidential election cycle about how the election process works.

When asked about her classmates, Rodriguez said, “I think there is some understanding [of the Constitution], but a limited understanding. Everyone takes a civics class, but it’s a basic rundown. And I think a lot of kids might forget if they don’t actively pursue government classes. Even in my AP classes, I’ve had students ask, ‘What’s the difference between a Democrat and Republican?’”

Still, Rodriguez said there’s hope.

“I think a lot has changed for the better. There’s more students that are educated and involving themselves,” she said.

“I saw the students being involved and assertive and doing this all on their own,” noted George, the Lyons Township teacher, of the Youth Decide event. “They all want to be there and are highly engaged. They want to talk about it.”

For a time, it appeared that the Youth Decide event might go by the wayside.

Prior to 2020, the event, and others like it, were sponsored by the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, often in partnership with Chicago-Kent. But after some fiscal setbacks, the CRFC saw little option but to close its doors.

That’s when Chicago-Kent stepped in, agreeing to bring the organization in-house in February 2020 and renaming it the Constitutional Democracy Project, rather than lose a resource so many students and teachers saw as valuable.

“It was very clear there was a crying need for civic education in our schools, and it would be an incredible loss to lose the program. There was an obvious need for it to exist,” said Chicago-Kent’s Shapiro, who started working with the CRFC more than a decade ago.

While the CRFC’s mission centered on metro-area schools, there were times—with a little grant funding—that they were able to reach out to rural districts as well. The Project hopes to expand that reach.

“We always had a great response from [rural] teachers because they don’t have the resources. Their kids were like sponges,” Runaas said. “My hope is because we’re virtual, and likely to continue to use virtual resources even after the pandemic, we can bring in more teachers from around the state that normally we couldn’t get to because of funding.”

“Given the deep divisions in our politics, we think it is more important than ever to reach and empower students from all over the state, including from disadvantaged communities, and to bring them together to learn to listen, disagree, and debate respectfully,” Shapiro said. “Nothing is more important for the long term health of our democracy.”

The Youth Decide program has been running for nine years. Those interested in learning more about supporting this program or programs like it can contact Runaas at drunaas@kentlaw.iit.edu.

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