BY JUSTICE DAVID K. THOMSON
New Mexico Supreme Court
I am excited to announce the second year of a New Mexico Supreme Court civics education program about the judiciary’s role in our democracy and the development of the rule of law.
Last year’s program was a resounding success, reaching over 580 students in schools statewide. Students watched recordings of an oral argument before our Supreme Court and worked with learning materials about the case. I then visited classes virtually, accompanied by the prosecution and defense attorneys, to discuss the legal issues and judicial process.
As Justice John Marshall reminds us in the United States Supreme Court ruling in Marbury v. Madison:
“The government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men. It will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right.”
Lessons borne from particular cases best convey what Justice Marshall meant. Watching a court proceeding and studying a court’s opinion reveals the purpose and role of our judiciary. We divided this year’s Rule of Law program into two parts, with that goal in mind.
On April 1, we hold an oral argument in Las Cruces at the Third Judicial District Courthouse and have invited high school and college students to attend. The case involves the alleged theft of livestock, also known as cattle rustling. The defendants stand accused of taking multiple cattle at one time from one owner. The core question is, whether the legislature, in writing the law prohibiting livestock theft, intended to punish a person with one count for the total theft or multiple counts of theft, one count for each individual cow. The case illuminates the judiciary’s role as the bridge between the legislature and the people they govern, showing young people how a court deliberates over the words of a law and legislative intent. After argument, while the Court conferences to deliberate, the state attorney and defense attorney will remain in the courtroom to answer questions. We ask the students to think deeply and identify the principles of constitutional government addressed or implied in the case.
The second part of the program takes a historical approach. May 18th, marks the 126th anniversary of the Supreme Court majority decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld state-imposed racial segregation. Mr. Plessy was arrested for violating a Louisiana state law requiring “separate” but “equal” travel accommodations. He had refused to move from a “whites only” train car. The majority’s decision became the legal basis for racial segregation in the United States for the next fifty years. In May of 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy, in a major victory for the civil rights movement. Justice John Harlan’s dissent in the Plessy decision serves us as well today as it did in 1896.
“But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”
In closing, I extend an invitation to educators across the state to contact my chambers if you would like to participate in one of these programs to advance civics education and help students understand how our judicial system works within our democracy.