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  • Symposium explores ways to improve the public’s understanding of the court system

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    Judge Russell Carparelli

    Featured speaker, Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Russell Carparelli, created the Our Courts project in February 2007 with U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Krieger. It provides nonpartisan information to adult audiences (such as Rotary Clubs and community groups) to further public knowledge and understanding of the state and federal courts in Colorado.

    Justice Ann Walsh Bradley

    Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley speaks about iCivics, a web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy. iCivics is the vision of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is concerned that students are not getting the information and tools they need for civic participation, and that civics teachers need better materials and support. For more information, visit icivics.org.


    Attendees break into small groups to discuss effective educational initiatives and partnership strategies to improve public awareness of the court system. More than 50 lawyers, judges, court staff, librarians, and teachers attended the full-day symposium.


    Racine Circuit County Court Judge Emily S. Meuller (left) and Public Education Committee member Ellen Henak discuss effective educational initiatives and partnership strategies to improve public awareness of the court system.

    July 22, 2011 – State Bar members joined with educators, librarians, court administrators and others at the Bar Center in Madison on Thursday, July 21, to explore ways to enhance the public’s understanding of Wisconsin’s court system.

    The event was sponsored by the State Bar’s Public Education Committee (PEC) and organized by Gail Richardson, Chair of PEC’s Court Education Task Force.

    Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson opened the session by stressing that educating the public about the role of the courts in American society is a continuing need that requires the repetition of messages clarifying the nature of our adversarial system and the rule of law. She warned that public respect for attorneys and the judicial system has already been diminished and will be further eroded if attorneys, educators and others fail to meet this challenge.

    She listed various initiatives launched over the past 15 years to advance this goal, including the Judicial Teaching Institute, “Justice on Wheels,” orientations for new legislators and resources posted on the Court’s website.

    Justice Ann Walsh Bradley joined with Janice Mertes, a Sun Prairie teacher who served on PEC’s K-12 Civics Education Task Force, to demonstrate iCivics, the on-line civics education resource created by Retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. 

    The symposium featured a presentation by the Hon. Russell Carparelli of the Colorado Court of Appeals, who is collaborating with the American Bar Association, the National Center for State Courts and others to replicate a successful Colorado initiative that fosters a deeper public understanding of the judiciary at the national level. 

    Judge Carparelli created the Our Courts project in February 2007 with U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Krieger to fill a growing need they saw in Colorado: Providing clear, nonpartisan information to further public knowledge and understanding of the state and federal courts in Colorado. Since then, scores of Colorado judges and other court officers have been trained to deliver pre-packaged (turnkey) messages to adult audiences at Rotary Clubs and similar venues. 

    He emphasized several key features of the strategy they developed for the Our Courts initiative: 

    • They “branded” Our Courts to establish a continuing public presence and to build credibility;
    • Adults were identified as the primary audience because, although there are several good programs that serve K-12 students (e.g., Mock Trial), no programs addressed adults and because adults are constantly exposed to sensational coverage of the courts in the media;
    • Rather than waiting for the public to come to them (or their website), the Our Courts team actively marketed their program to Rotary, Lions and similar groups who, he noted, are always looking for luncheon speakers (after priming the pump with blind solicitations, they now receive speaker requests from these groups statewide);
    • The group avoided “reinventing the wheel” by utilizing resources created by the ABA, Justice-at-Stake and others to develop their materials;
    • They avoided an academic “Civics 101” approach and chose, instead, a dynamic presentation style that involves the audience and uses language that speaks to American values;
    • They were mindful of their choice of words; for example, research has shown that the public tends to view the phrase “judicial independence” skeptically but are receptive to the phrase “fair and impartial courts;”
    • Judges are recruited as the core presenters due to their inherent credibility (district attorneys and others also participate, however);
    • While the Our Courts presentations are made available to speakers as self-contained “turnkey” PowerPoint materials, they’re designed to allow speakers to use their own style and, within the constraints noted above, words;
    • All speakers are required to complete 2.5 hours of training and are given supplementary materials (e.g., guidance on how to handle hostile questions);
    • Guidelines were created to avoid potential ethical or other problems (e.g., speakers are not allowed to state a position on pending legislation, any court case, ballot issues or proposed changes to the court system); and
    • They emphasize that the goal of Our Courts is to enhance public understanding of the courts – not the law.

    To achieve their goals and to keep the Our Courts message in front of the public in a variety of settings, the group has developed several distinct presentations, addressing such issues as “Our State Courts,” “Our Federal Courts,” “See You in Court: The Life of a Civil Lawsuit” and others. They have also partnered with statewide associations, law schools and others who share their goal of improving the publics’ understanding of the courts. 

    As of July 2011, Our Courts speakers had made more than 300 presentations statewide to nearly 10,000 people and won the ABA’s 2010 Burnham “Hod” Greeley Award.

    Following Judge Carparelli’s presentation, the attorneys, educators and others at the session met in small groups to develop the framework of a court education project for Wisconsin. Topics they addressed include what audience such an initiative should prioritize, what message would be most constructive and what methods should be utilized. Their findings and recommendations will be presented to the PEC for further development.


    Rotunda Report is the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Government Relations e-newsletter that highlights legislative, judicial, and administrative developments that impact the legal profession and the justice system. It is published twice a month and is distributed free to attorneys, public officials and others who help shape public policy in Wisconsin. We invite your org pubaffairs wisbar suggestions to make the Rotunda Report more informative and useful and we encourage you to visit our website for the most current information about justice-related issues.

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