By Michael Elias Shammas, Research Fellow
Note: This article was originally published in the Huffington Post in 2014, during Michael’s first year of law school.
What if I told you that the doctrine closest to the halls of power is largely unknown to the public? That the most pertinent social science subject — one that affects every single one of us every single day — is taught to only a select few? That would be absurd, right?
Well, unfortunately this is no fiction. It is the state of legal knowledge in America, and it is profoundly troubling.
After a year of study at Harvard Law School, the common sense notion that law is more than some abstract topic to be contemplated by stuffy academics has not yet abandoned me. Even the most arcane cases reveal that law has real effects on real people. These effects can be good; they can also be bad. Law is the difference between marriage and divorce, riches and poverty, freedom and incarceration, and — in some cases — life and death. Like its source, politics, law affects us all, yet knowledge of very basic legal concepts is even lower than the average American’s already-pitiful knowledge of government.
The reason legal ignorance troubles is simple: A citizen who does not understand law does not know how (1) to invoke it offensively when entitled to legal redress and (2) to invoke it defensively against misuses of the state’s monopoly on force. Indeed, ignorance of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure is one reason intelligence agencies got away with massive privacy violations for so long with so little outcry. It’s why the “Patriot” Act — a bill with several provisions of dubious legality (to say the least) — skyrocketed through Congress. It’s why Americans accept an often-macabre criminal justice system that makes our country both the “land of the free” and the largest jailer on Earth. And so on and so forth.
To all this one might say, “I don’t need to learn the law. That’s what lawyers are for.” But as the above examples reveal, legal situations are not limited to lawsuits or arrests; whether we like it or not, law is invoked and manipulated by elites every day, sometimes to protect and often to restrict our rights. As a recent Supreme Court case made eminently clear, counting on legal elites to keep tabs on other elites is a surefire path to oppression and judicial hoodwinking. In a well-functioning democracy, the job of legal oversight must and should go to not only the courts but also the people.
For these reasons, “we the people” who elect lawmakers to Congress should have at least a basic understanding of legal doctrines — of stare decisis (precedent), of the “common law,” of constitutional law, of the basic elements of criminal law (actus reus, mens rea, etc.) — so that when political or judicial elites speak of changing or exploiting these doctrines, citizens can exercise their voting power and decide for themselves. After all, the law implicates all of our rights—not just the rights of elites.
The point of this small essay is to say this, then: We should teach law outside of law schools. There should be a comprehensive survey course in high school, perhaps one taught alongside the typical government course many high schoolers already take. It should cover not only criminal law, but also civil procedure, tort law and constitutional law. By teaching this course in public schools, our government will not only alert young minds to the immense and sometimes frightening power of the law (thus deterring crime); it will arm us — all of us — with the tools necessary to invoke law in order to further our rights and prevent elite misuse of legal mechanisms.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote, if we truly desire democracy we must “educate and inform the whole mass of the people,” for “they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Recent events such as NSA-gate, extrajudicial assassinations, and Wall Street’s post hoc immunity from prosecution reveal the continued relevance of Jefferson’s words. While I don’t know the solution to all these problems, I know that a public armed with legal knowledge can’t hurt. So what are we waiting for?
Teach law to non-lawyers.