NM Supreme Court program to teach students what the law means in the United States
By Justice David K. Thomson
New Mexico Supreme Court
As I drive to work, past the barricades and the fencing surrounding the New Mexico Roundhouse, I think how it informs public perception about our democratic process and understanding of the “rule of law.” Equally important is how the “rule of law” is required to maintain a civil and democratic society.
The “rule of law” is an evasive notion, transformed into a purely aspirational concept. It is something we want a judge to follow or an executive to apply within its limits. But what is the rule of law really? Thomas Paine put it well in Common Sense, first published in 1776, describing the rule of law as one of the most patriotic concepts of our democracy.
“[I]n America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.”
To that end, I write this letter. As a means toward civic education leading to civil governance, I believe the citizens of New Mexico will better understand the “rule of law” and its importance by watching it in action. In the Judiciary, it requires striving to ensure that those laws that are set out in the Constitution and statutes apply to each person equally, and assuring that persons who violate them are treated equally in a court of law. Assertions are tested before they are admitted as facts. The law is applied to these facts, and outcomes are based on thought and reason and not on emotion or prejudice.
I believe that witnessing how the “rule of law” works in the judicial system is a unique opportunity for the students of New Mexico. One silver lining of the Coronavirus pandemic is that now we can make our oral arguments more accessible to the public. On March 3, we will live-stream an oral argument in the matter of State v. Adams, No. S-1-SC-37722. The case is well suited as an introduction to the workings of the judicial system. The matter originated in the magistrate court in Farmington, New Mexico, and is now before the New Mexico Supreme Court. The Court must determine whether a court must exclude blood test results as facts in this case where the defendant is alleged to have driven under the influence.
I have sent letters to educators informing them of the ability to view the oral argument and committing to appear (remotely) for a discussion session with their classes to answer questions about the process and the issues presented by both parties. As of today, I am scheduled to appear in front of 561 students at seven schools including my alma mater Santa Fe High. We are striving to make the material and presentation available to students who are non-English speaking.
I suppose, for some, my efforts will call Pollyanna to mind, but I believe we can advance civic education in New Mexico and faith in our government by giving students and other members of the public the opportunity to observe and inquire about how the judiciary operates and how disputes are resolved in a civil democratic society. I wish to do my part by initiating this exciting program for positive exposure to our judicial system for our students and to engage bright young minds in discussion.
I thank all the students and teachers and administrators who accepted our Court’s invitation. It is our hope to expand this program and, when permitted, conduct oral argument in schools and communities throughout this state.