March 2016 Podcast: Engaging students in democracy and voting

By Student Press Law Center

Judge Thomas Jacobs, an expert on juvenile law, discusses his new book, “Every Vote Matters,” and why it is so important to inform young people on the legal system and get them engaged in our democracy.

Frank LoMonte: Hi everyone and welcome to another monthly edition of the Student Press Law Center’s podcast. I’m Frank LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC. The Student Press Law Center is a nonprofit advocate for the rights of student journalists everywhere. We’re online at www.splc.org, on Twitter @SPLC, and we’re reachable by email at splc@splc.org if you have any questions at all about your legal rights to gather and publish news.

Well, it could hardly be a more timely subject to talk about youth civic engagement as we’re sitting here in March 2016 in the throes of an unprecedented, in many ways, presidential campaign. One that is being regarded as the most vitriolic in modern history. Young people are participating in high numbers in support of certain candidates, but there are persistent questions about whether our education system is doing enough to prepare young people to take ownership of their democracy. Our guest today, Judge Thomas Jacobs of Arizona is an author of a series of books published by Free Spirit Publishing that highlights the legal system for young readers. They are targeted for young readers age 13 to adults, and his most recent book is just out: Every Vote Matters, written in partnership with his daughter Natalie Jacobs, who is also an attorney. Tom Jacobs served as assistant attorney general in the state of Arizona for 13 years. After that, he was appointed to the trial court in Arizona where among his assignments was serving as a juvenile court and family court judge until he retired from the bench in 2008. He also taught juvenile law at Arizona State University. We’re so happy to welcome Judge Jacobs to the podcast to talk about the book Every Vote Matters and especially about how educators can be using it to get young people more excited about their own legal rights. So thanks for joining us, Judge.

Thomas Jacobs: You’re welcome Frank, and thank you for this opportunity.

LoMonte: Well, start us off a bit by talking about how your experience — in particular your service as a family and juvenile court judge — got you interested in this current line of work, which is demystifying the legal system for young people.

Jacobs: I did start when I was appointed to the court — my first 13 years of practice, I spent as an assistant attorney general in Arizona representing a number of state clients, state agencies. I worked for the Department of Corrections for a year or so and then did criminal work for an additional three, prosecuting cases in different counties around the state and also doing a fair amount of appellate work. Then there was an opening in the child welfare position in that same office and that interested me and I was fortunate enough to make the transfer to that position so that led to my next nine years of representing Child Protective Services as my sole client and handling cases statewide for Child Protective Services. And that opened my eyes to the whole area of students’ rights, children’s rights, and I noticed, this was in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, a lack of information in the written word for people coming to court, for anyone curious to — do these people even have rights? What is the judicial system about?

And one thing led to another and I was fortunate to find Free Spirit Publishing in the mid-90s, an education publisher out of Minnesota, and I wrote my first book, which was just basically an answer to many of the questions I was asked every day in my courtroom, by not only the juveniles who were appearing before me but by their parents, by law enforcement, by educators — what exactly, what rights exist? What are the rights and responsibilities of juveniles in America? And I did some research, didn’t find anything really on the very specific subject on their rights and responsibilities. So Free Spirit put the book out and I’ve written a number — Every Vote Matters, the most recent one, is the fifth book I’ve written for Free Spirit in their teen law series. So one thing leads to another.

LoMonte: There’s a theme that runs through the book. It starts with the title, Every Vote Matters, and you highlight throughout the book how votes, particularly on the U.S. Supreme Court have proven to be throughout history, at times decided by a single vote which dramatizes to young people the value of that vote. And one of the things — by the way, I love this book, I couldn’t recommend it more highly — one of the things I really liked about it was it doesn’t talk down to young people, and it doesn’t sugar coat the seriousness of issues. There are some very adult topics in here, things like the death penalty for juveniles, strip searching kids for drugs that are not sugar coated, that are dealt with in a very serious and forthright way, even though the book is written for ages 13 and up. But it’s very respectful of your audience, which I really like and think is somewhat unusual, frankly, in the way that we message to young people. But please do talk about the concept of Every Vote Matters and how that is presented throughout the book.

Jacobs: Sure. Thank you. What sparked the idea was I’ve got a number of other books out that I write for a legal publisher and my responsibility over the years has been to provide annual updates to law books i’ve written for judges and practicing attorneys. And in the course of doing that, I’ve noticed that from 2005 on, a number of 5-4 decisions that are being issued by the Supreme Court. And with a little research, I found out that there are well over 1,000 decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court decided by one vote — in matters important to all Americans in their daily lives. And putting that together with research on the other books and watching the election cycle in this country and reading the statistic in 2008 that about 40 million Americans are not voting in that presidential election just opened my eyes as to why? What are the reasons for this? When by one vote, nine people out of now 320 million Americans make these decisions, and many of their votes come down to 5 to 4. Then I noticed in 2012, the number increased. Approximately 90 million americans did not vote in that election. Eligible voters! About 20 million were registered voters who didn’t get to the polls. The other 70 were people who didn’t bother to register or vote. So that prompted my daughter and I to take a close look at this.

And Natalie and I worked on this book for the past five years. As you mentioned, it did just come out last month, and the timing is just certainly not planned. It was planned for this election year, but not with what’s going on in our presidential election this year with the primaries. The purpose of the book and the title is really our response to everyone — not necessarily teenagers, because it’s only the older teenagers, 18 and 19 that can vote, with very few exceptions to that in some states or areas where if you’re 17, or some states where you can register at 16, vote at 17. But for most of the country, you turn 18 and then you register and hopefully vote. But this is our answer to all those people who say, why bother to register? My vote doesn’t matter, it doesn’t count.

That’s the line that we kept in mind, that statement that we kept in mind throughout our research. We need to point out and show people, educate them as to why and how every single vote matters. Not just in a presidential year, every four years, in all matters throughout your life. You’re exposed actually, to voting possibilities and opportunities to elementary on up. If you think about it. Even in elementary school, they might elect a class officer or somebody similar to in high school the student body president. There might be clubs or organizations at school — whether it’s elementary, middle or high school — that you will join voluntarily. They might elect club officers. And that requires a vote whether it’s raising your hand or a voice vote or actually a ballot. Whatever process is used to elect that person to that particular office.

You’re exposed to the concept of voting from a very early age. We want to impress upon everybody of not only the responsibility because you do have the opportunity in this country to express your views by voting and it’s so simple to do. We would like that to — once it’s built in the child and in the teenager that they can express their opinion by casting their vote — continue that into their adult lives. This year in particular, if you consider the fact that 90 million people can vote, that’s a strong voting bloc that can bring about major change in our country, as far as selecting a particular candidate and voting on issues, propositions, whether it’s an initiative or referendum, votes matter. In the first part of the book, we talk about the voting process, we present a timeline in the book to show the history over the last 200 years to show what’s going on with voting. We bring it up to date and we present a little section about barriers to voting, we have questions that are being discussed across the country, about mandatory voting. Should it be mandatory? And about the barriers — there are barriers that exist today and a lot of them are under litigation now in the courts, as far as being able to vote and voter ID. All of these issues come into play. We do point out why every single vote matters.

For example, there has been one president, the 20th president of this country, Rutherford B. Hayes, who was elected by one vote in 1876 — one electoral vote. There have been other instances where Supreme Court justices have been confirmed or denied by one vote. So one vote at all different levels of society can and is making a difference. If you think about the 2000 Bush v. Gore case that the Supreme Court accepted and ruled on, Bush only won the presidency by five electoral votes. And it was a consequence of two votes — one in the Florida Supreme Court and one by the U.S. Supreme Court, by one vote in each: 4-3 in the Florida Supreme Court and 5-4 in the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s bringing it up to date from the late 1970s to the present, every single vote matters in many, many situations.

LoMonte: Yeah, although voting is an overarching theme of the book, it’s really an in-depth survey of the workings of the legal system, but done as you explain, not from a historical perspective but a contemporary perspective. It has references to court cases that have been ongoing as recently as a month or two ago, so you clearly were editing right up until press time. It’s a very readable, current events type of book, rather than being a dry historical treatment, which I think is wonderful and makes these issues much more relatable to that core teenage audience.

Talk a little bit about how schools today do or don’t present the issue of student rights and that broader issue of understanding the legal system. It seems like schools do a fairly good job in the civics and history classes explaining that chart we all studied about how a bill becomes a law and you get quite a good survey about the legislative process and who has held the White House, but maybe quite a bit less about the workings of the judiciary and the legal system and that seems like a need that you’re addressing here.

Jacobs: Right, and I’m sure someone at first glance would look at the book or a review of it and come away with it that this a rather abstract approach of actually registering to vote and getting to the polls and voting. And that was our intent. We want to show the reader. Our approach to the subject is not presented to the schools at all, that I’m aware of, in all the schools I’ve been in touch with over the years with my juvenile writing. This is just too much for them to handle. It doesn’t fit the guidelines that they need to teach as far as testing at the end of the year and all of that, so we thought we would show that we’d bring it up-to-date and make it very relevant, very current to what’s going on in America today.

Our approach to the subject is really simple — it boils down to this. That when we go to the polls every four years and vote for the president, and our president can win by one popular or one electoral vote. The president has the constitutional responsibility and we’re living this right now with the recent passing of Justice Scalia. The president has the constitutional duty to nominate a replacement for that particular vacancy, for Justice Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. And then once the president nominates someone to fill that vacancy, the job then passes to the Senate, again by the Constitution, to set a hearing, review the candidate, make sure he or she is vetted thoroughly before they set a hearing and then vote. An up or down vote — either rejecting that nominee or confirming that nominee to serve on the Supreme Court. And as we know, that position, there’s no limitation, term limits on a Supreme Court justice. That person sits for life. They can sit down at any point, that’s their decision, but the appointment is for life. Recently, one of the justices stepped down in 2010 after serving 35 years on the court: John Paul Stevens. They make a tremendous difference in our lives because of the issues that are brought before them. What we did, we presented 15 chapters in the book about 15 particular cases and issues that the Court had — they heard oral arguments, they took it under advisement, and they ruled, usually at the end of the Supreme Court’s term at the end of June. And we presented 15 cases that were decided by 1 vote. These were all cases that were 5-4 decisions. These are all issues that were discussed across the country, whether in newspapers or on radio shows, or in courts where there’s litigation going on about all of these different issues. That includes some things that don’t affect most people like campaign finance, search and seizure when it affects what the police can do, what law enforcement can do, as far as searching your person or your car.

Many, many issues that come before the Court that are ruled on 5-4: LGBT rights, the First Amendment, of course, with freedom of religion in public places, freedom of association, the case before the Court this term in regards to affirmative action, which is going to affect our youth when they’re applying for college or university in the future. A lot of issues they decide are issues that are in the news, that are being discussed. Some of them hopefully are being discussed in classrooms, but we want students and adults to understand that these nine people are making decisions for everyone in the country. Our point is by presenting different cases that are the results of 5-4 decisions by the Supreme Court, that we ask the reader at the end of each chapter to consider and discuss with their family and classmates what would their lives be like today in this country had the court decided by one vote the other way? If they had not decided in favor of let’s say, gay marriage last year in 2015? We would still have some states that allowed it and other states that didn’t. And with the effect that you go from state to state and you move and if the marriage doesn’t last and it leads to divorce action, can that even happen in a state you move to that doesn’t recognize gay marriage? But that’s been resolved now by the Court last year.

LoMonte: What do you think is the level of knowledge and appreciation of the workings and importance of this judicial system?

Jacobs: I don’t think it’s broad. I think many professionals understand … they keep up with the news and study up on the subject or even if they just follow the newspaper, the daily newspaper, you’re going to get a cursory education on the subject. But I think most people today are just too busy getting by, making ends meet, taking care of their families and other responsibilities. First you have to have the interest and once you realize — and that’s one of the points we’re trying to make to our readers, once they realize just how important the Supreme Court is and the work that it does, I think they’ll gain an appreciation of the work that they do by reading this and seeing the responsibilities they have in making and coming to these decisions. It has an effect in their lives. Especially … maybe one silver lining of what’s going on in the country now with this election cycle is that people are paying attention and listening to what the issues are. If we can get past the preliminaries and talk substance, they are learning about the process and the role government plays.

We have a really interesting situation facing us right now with the three branches of government — we have the executive with the president having to nominate a replacement in Justice Scalia’s vacancy for the Supreme Court. And that passes to the legislative branch where the Senate has to take action. And what they’re taking action on is the appointment of someone in the judicial branch. So we have all three branches of government and the interplay between the three … it’s so important the decision that’s made. Especially in this situation with the Supreme Court, because it is a lifetime appointment. So we have a lot going on and I think people need to study up and not just accept and pass on soundbites without going a little bit deeper on the issues and questioning any substance or lack of substance that they’re hearing or reading about. It’s all of our responsibility, participating in our democracy — and that’s what we want students to do. We want students to get engaged. We want them to understand. Even if they’re not of voting age, they may not be 18, they may be in middle school and be 12 or 13, they still have opinions and there are ways they can express those opinions.

LoMonte: Well I want to give a shout out to two different websites here. Judge Tom Jacobson’s website is called askthejudge.info. You can find links as well to his speaking engagements and other works. Also the freespirit.com website carries a catalog of Judge Jacobs’ publications there. Just in the couple minutes we have left, this new book Every Vote Matters also comes with what’s called a leader’s guide, which I guess is a teacher’s edition of the book, so maybe you can talk in a couple of minutes how you envision that schools might be able to incorporate Every Vote Matters book into the school day — Where would these lessons live? Where would they belong? How could they be made to fit into the Common Core demands of our schools?

Jacobs: Right. We prepared, at the request of our publisher actually, a leader’s guide, a teacher’s guide to accompany the book. And they provide it free upon purchase of the book. And it’s for educators to browse through so they can keep up — to start the conversation about any of the 15 subject matters in the book. What we do is we present questions and answers that the teacher can use with his or her students in the classroom. To get the conversation going. Not only the conversation, but answering questions like, I’m only 13 years old. What can I do? I know there’s a city council election going on, for example, and one of the propositions on the ballot is banning the plastic bags or there’s an issue on our state ballot this year about the recreational use of marijuana or maybe lowering the voting age. There’s all kinds of issues that affect everybody and it doesn’t have to be on the national or federal front, it can be something right in your hometown that affects you. Maybe you heard your teacher or parents discuss it at home. So we provide the teacher’s prompts to discuss these various issues and we suggest to them activities that they can raise with their students — here’s what you can do. If you feel strongly on a subject, you don’t have to keep it to yourself, you have the right to express your opinion, your views on whatever the subject might be. You can write a letter to the editor to your local paper. If you want to change, for example, a rule at school, maybe there’s a part of your dress code that you disagree with — what can you do about it, other than complain and gripe about it with your friends at school? You can take action. You can take a look at what the policies are in the school and the school district, maybe by taking a look at the student handbook. Circulate a petition for signatures. Attend local council meetings or board of education meetings. Many, many things you can do to bring about change and get engaged in social activism. That’s what we would like our students and youth to do. And this all applies of course to adults, they can do much the same thing. The guide really just gives information to the teachers and discussion points and suggestions they can make to their students who are interested in a particular issue and want to actually take action and affect change on an issue they’re interested in.

LoMonte: Terrific. Well we’ll leave it there but thanks so much to Judge Tom Jacobs for being our guest and for this valuable contribution that is eminently readable and will have a place on my bookshelf and I hope on yours too. Every Vote Matters is available by Free Spirit Publishing. Thanks Judge Jacobs for joining us and thanks to all of you for listening to the Student Press Law Center podcast. We’ll be back next month with another installment about the legal issues impacting student journalists and their advisers. In the meantime, you can find us online at www.splc.org, on twitter @SPLC, or through email splc@splc.org. Thanks for listening.