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VOL. 36 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 02, 2012

GAVELS program casts attorneys, judges as educators

By Joe Morris

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Efforts to redefine how Tennessee Supreme Court judges are chosen, along with moves to bring judicial oversight into the legislative sphere, would seem to show a certain disdain for the third branch of government by members of the second.

On a lesser scale, that’s sometimes echoed by the general public, which often mistrusts the courts and those who work within them.

This state of affairs needs to be addressed, at least according to the judges and attorneys who make up the Tennessee Judicial Conference and Tennessee Bar Association. To that end, they have created the Gaining Access to Valuable Education about the Legal System, or GAVELS, program.

What GAVELS does is basically send volunteer practicing and retired attorneys and judges into the community to speak to civic organizations and other interested groups. The goal is to provide a shorter version of the civics classes that once were taught in Tennessee schools, says Robert Murrian, a mediator and arbitrator with Reeves, Herbert & Murrian and a retired judge.

“When I was a student, I had a civics teacher and a government teacher who really set me on my course professionally,” Murrian says. “If representative democracy is to survive, I think the citizenry has to have some good understanding of where the power lies, and that’s with the people.”

By working to demystify what the courts do, and what attorneys do within the legal system, people will better understand the role, and the limitations, of that system, adds Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association.

“We had been hearing, and observing, that folks don’t seem to have a good sense of how the justice system works, and we think that if anyone could explain it, judges and lawyers would be the obvious choice,” he says.

Since debuting earlier this year, GAVELS has gotten more than a dozen requests despite very little promotion, something Ramsaur says he sees as proof of need.

A list of available judges and attorneys and the topics they are willing to speak about are available online at tncourts.gov and tba.org. Schools, civic organizations and business groups may request a speaker by contacting a judge or attorney listed on either website.

“People do understand how important government is, and they want to know how it works. Many believe they do when it comes to the legal system, and then they have to get involved and find out otherwise.”

For Murrian, who says there’s a lot of talk out there about what the founding fathers intended when it comes to legislation and litigation, GAVELS is the chance to actually discuss how the legal system, and the various branches of government in general, work.

“My experience in government was a very positive one, and I am eager to share that,” he says. “I am a strong advocate for balance of power; we don’t live in a majority democracy. The founders decided that certain rights, which are set out in the Bill of Rights, have to be protected regardless of who is in the majority.”

That often leads to unpopular legal decisions and charges of “arrogant judges,” which Murrian said he doesn’t like to hear.

“Safeguarding the rights of the minority is a very important role, and it’s not very well understood,” he says. “When the constitutional convention was ending, a woman stopped Ben Franklin and asked him what kind of government we were to have. He told her it would be a repetitive democracy, if we could keep it.

“It’s always been part of my belief that there are forces trying to impose their will on the rest of us, and the founders set up a pretty good system of checks and balances to stop that. It seems like we fuss and fight a lot, but that’s the design of separation of powers.”

The program now is being promoted more heavily by its parent organizations, as well as by the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, so Murrian and his fellow travelers may soon find their calendars filling up. That’s fine, he adds, although it does mean he may need to spice up his presentation a bit.

“They have been very polite,” Murrian says. “I’m not sure if that’s because I didn’t say anything controversial, or if I just didn’t make a big impression. But I do invite questions, and I hope to get plenty of them. This is a very good forum to actually look at the facts of how our system is set up.”

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