3-Minute Civics: An introduction – and a little bit about the rule of law

For the Monitor
Published: 6/23/2019 12:25:16 AM

‘I don’t fully understand what they’re talking about, but everyone seems to have a strong opinion about it.”

Do you ever find yourself feeling this way as you read or watch the news? Would you like to have a little more background so you can make more informed decisions for yourself?

We’ve all been there. Civics is frequently no more than a course in high school for most people. For some, it’s not even that. In our democracy, there are checks and balances, federal, state and local governments, rights that seem to conflict with other rights and always, it seems, taxes. How does it all work together? (Does it work together?) When do the feds make the rules and enforce the laws, and when is it up to New Hampshire? What’s Congress supposed to do, and what’s the role of the president? Does anyone actually know what the N.H. Executive Council does? Is this country even a true democracy? Or are we a republic? What’s the difference, anyway?

In this time of turmoil, we all could use some additional tools to help us navigate the issues and debates taking place at every level of government. That’s where “3-Minute Civics” comes in. We’ll explore this territory in a column every other week over the next several months, examining in plain English concepts that will help you understand and participate in our state and national political conversation. And, as you might have guessed, it will take only a few minutes to read each column.

So who are the writers of 3-Minute Civics? Allow us to introduce ourselves:

First there’s Dan Marcus, a one-time lawyer known for 15 years to the kids at John Stark High School in Weare as Mr. Marcus, the Social Studies teacher. Dan teaches the Civics course and competition, “We the People,” at John Stark, and is a resident of Concord.

Next there’s Rob Fried, a retired professor of education at Northeastern University and former head of the Upper Valley Educators Institute in Lebanon. Rob is an author and a sometime contributor to the Forum here at the Concord Monitor. His books include The Passionate Teacher and The Game of School: Why We All Play It, How it Hurts Kids, and What It Will Take to Change It.

Dave Alcox is a Civics teacher at Milford High School. He’s been recognized as the National Civics Educator of the Year by the Center for Civic Education in 2013 and by the American Lawyers Alliance in 2017, and he received the New Hampshire Social Studies Teacher of the Year award in 2002, 2006 and 2017. He was the recipient of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship in 2000, and was named Milford Citizen of the Year in 2013.

Finally, I’m Tracy Hahn-Burkett, a writer and public policy advocate. I’ve worked in and with Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as with nonprofit organizations in New Hampshire, Washington, D.C. and abroad. I speak acronym and even at this weighty moment in our history, I find myself endlessly fascinated by the details of N.H. legislative procedure.

So what kind of things will we talk about in this column? Let’s begin with a principle that is one of the foundations upon which our country, a government based on a constitution, is built: the “rule of law.” You hear this term tossed about on cable news and see it online all the time, but what does it really mean?

The “rule of law” means that our country is governed by a set of agreed-upon principles to which everyone is equally bound. We are all subject to our nation’s laws, without exception, and violation of those laws subjects the violator to the agreed-upon punishment (which is applied according to the agreed-upon procedures).

Does the application of the principle of the rule of law get complicated and dicey? Sure. But fundamentally, that’s what the rule of law means.

So if someone steals a loaf of bread, he has probably violated a law that, at least in principle, applies to everyone in that state equally. All adults, regardless of personal characteristics or standing in the state, are subject to the law’s penalties. But if only certain people are prosecuted under the law forbidding the stealing of bread while law enforcement looks away for others, that act by the state threatens the rule of law.

You’ve probably heard or seen a lot written these past months regarding the question of whether the conduct by some in our federal government has violated the law and gone unpunished. This in turn has caused some officials and observers to raise the question of whether we are still a nation governed by the rule of law.

As Congress and the people continue to consider how to approach conduct in the Executive Branch, the tension around these questions is likely to increase. As a result, questions about the status of the rule of law in America will probably only become sharper.

Think about it. Talk with family and friends. What do you think?

(Tracy Hahn-Burkett lives in Bow.)


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