This article was written by Dan Blau, immediate past chair of the section.
Constitution Day, observed each year on September 17, commemorates the signing of the United States Constitution and celebrates the ideals embodied therein. While Constitution Day has been celebrated in various forms for many decades, Congress officially created the holiday in 2004. In doing so, Congress instructed all educational institutions receiving federal funds to hold educational programs on the United States Constitution on September 17 of each year. Congress also sought to promote constitutional education within government itself — it ordered the heads of every federal agency to provide training on the Constitution to its employees every year!
Our section has long seen Constitution Day as an opportunity to provide pro bono legal education to our community. Because our section strives to increase public awareness of both the state and federal constitutions, and because North Carolina does not yet have a holiday that independently recognizes the North Carolina Constitution, we include our state constitution in our annual Constitution Day celebration.
Last year for Constitution Day, we teamed up with Law-Related Education at the Bar Association. Every year, the Bar Association receives requests from middle school, high school, and higher education teachers across the state for attorneys to visit their classrooms and speak with their students about constitutional topics. This year, for example, the Bar Association received requests for speakers on a variety of topics such as war powers and the selective service, the Civil Rights movement, voting rights, searches of student lockers, and First Amendment freedoms. Members of our section council sought to fill as many of these requests as we could.
I was honored to speak with a group of thirty high-school seniors at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh. The students were enrolled in an Honors Law and Justice class, taught by Ms. Leigh Ann Frazier. Throughout the semester, the students explored legal topics such as the state and federal constitutions, court systems, and civil and criminal justice. Ms. Frazier invited me to speak on “Criminal Law and the United States Constitution.”
To begin my presentation, I asked the students to identify some of the major criminal-justice provisions in the state and federal constitutions. We began with some of the “core” provisions in the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution and in Article I, Sections 20, 23, and 24 of the North Carolina Constitution. From search and seizure and self-incrimination protections to the rights to counsel and a jury, we examined the constitutional cornerstones of the criminal process. We also looked at the First and Second Amendments, and discussed some of the concerns that might arise when the government enacts criminal laws that affect the freedoms contained in those constitutional provisions.
After laying that groundwork, I shared a few real life cases from my own criminal practice and asked the students to identify any issues that implicated the state or federal constitutions. (They can consider it their first ever “law school” exam!) We discussed one case where my client was charged with using profanity on a public road after getting into a fight with her boyfriend outside of a nightclub, and another case where my client was ordered deported after his original attorney failed to warn him about the immigration consequences of his guilty pleas. We also discussed a recent high-profile murder case in Wake County.
Finally, I gave Ms. Frazier’s class a copy of “North Carolina Constitution Explained”, published by the Law-Related Education Advisory Committee of the Bar Association. This 60 page, full color book examines the entire North Carolina constitution, explains its provisions in easy to understand terms, and compares the constitution to its federal counterpart. As part of our Constitution Day celebration, our section purchased 75 copies of the “North Carolina Constitution Explained” book. Our council members brought a copy of the book to every classroom they visited.
I was incredibly impressed by the students in Ms. Frazier’s class. They were eager to learn about constitutional issues and engaged in spirited debate about the federal Bill of Rights and state Declaration of Rights. In each of the cases we discussed, the students did an excellent job identifying the relevant constitutional issues and were excited to learn about the real-life outcomes of those cases. I look forward to returning to Ms. Frazier’s class for next year’s Constitution Day celebration!