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JUSTICE MATTERS: Better understanding ‘we’ are ‘the people’ responsible for shaping our shared governance


Among my varied duties as a judge of the Supreme Court of Missouri, I frequently speak with groups — from elementary students to senior citizens — explaining how our courts function. It’s my favorite part of my job, and one I share with judges from throughout the state who participate in our civic education committee’s work to help connect Missourians with their courts!

A recent national survey found 81% of us understand the rule of law — our foundational principle that everyone must follow the law. I wish that percentage was 100, but it may be the remaining 19% haven’t thought about the rule of law since they were in school and don’t understand how it remains relevant in their lives.

Our constitution begins, “We the People,” outlining an agreement to work together to create “a more perfect union,” “establish justice” and ensure “domestic tranquility.” Tying together these goals is the notion of civility, without disagreements turning to violence. I remember well working hard in Mrs. Sanders’ and Mr. Brown’s classes in junior high and high school in Hannibal to memorize our foundational government principles, mostly because I wanted to do well on exams! 

But the lessons all felt abstract. In school, I didn’t really understand who “we the people” was ... I thought perhaps it was some group of long-ago “other people.” Besides, I didn’t know and certainly felt no personal connection with any members of Congress, state legislators, governors or judges.

It wasn’t until I had college internships with our state legislature and later Congress, where I saw firsthand how our laws were made in Jefferson City and Washington, D.C., that I realized “we” — you and me! — are the “people” who are government, and we all have a responsibility in shaping how our government works. Through those internships, it dawned on me that the constitution was not a dusty old paper drawn up by long-dead men — it was still alive and well in practice every day! Fascinated, I came to understand how important the constitution and rule of law are, not just in the capitol where our lawmakers work but, quite literally, everywhere — even my small home town!

Every May 1, pursuant to Congressional designation, we celebrate Law Day — a day of national dedication to the principles of government under the law. Each year has a theme, set by the American Bar Association. This year’s theme, “Voices of Democracy,” encompassed a recognition of how our system of government gives us the opportunity to discuss important issues in honest and civil ways, to express our views at the ballot box, and to resolve our disputes in a court of law.

The groups I speak with throughout the state are very different from one another, but we all agree we should be governed by a common set of laws. I use concrete examples familiar to most people and get excited to see the “light bulbs come on” as other Missourians grasp how our three branches of government work together every day in ways that do matter to our ordinary lives. Our legislature, guided by what they think the policy should be, writes the laws; our executive agencies carry out those laws; and when we have disputes, our courts help us resolve them.

I enjoy using our civic education programs to show others how our courts are key to helping us maintain tranquility and seek justice. Courts operate on a time-proven system of procedures, written out so everyone knows the rules in advance. In court, both parties (and sometimes there are more!) get to present their side of the story. There is a certain decorum expected in court — we treat everyone with respect, behave in an orderly fashion, and speak when it is our turn. The judge (or jury) listens carefully to everything we say and then applies the law to the facts to determine the outcome. Judges have bailiffs to help make sure everyone remains calm and safe in the courtroom, even as emotions might run high over a particular issue. 

How thankful I am for this kind of system of governance. I loved being a lawyer, and now I love being a judge. I am thankful for Mrs. Sanders and Mr. Brown for helping spark my interest in the law, even if I didn’t appreciate it as much then as I do in hindsight. 

As my colleagues and I continue to interact with Missourians all over the state, whether they tour our Court as part of their visit to Jefferson City or in their hometowns, I am so encouraged by the questions they ask and the concerns they express. It demonstrates they know perhaps more than they realize the importance of our American democracy, the rule of law and the role our courts play in helping us maintain a civil society.