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New Minnesota Justice & Democracy Centers to focus on boosting civic education

U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim says the two Minnesota Justice & Democracy Centers will fill a gap in civics education and help both children and adults understand their government and the need to respect democratic institutions.

The first center is expected to open next year in the federal courthouse in downtown St. Paul.
The first center is expected to open next year in the federal courthouse in downtown St. Paul.
U.S. District Court

One year before Americans got embroiled in an ugly debate about the validity of the 2020 election results, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts unleashed a warning flare about threats to U.S. democracy.

“We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside,” Roberts wrote in his 2019 year-end report on the federal judiciary. “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”

On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim will deliver a speech in Minneapolis that lays out how the creation of two Minnesota Justice & Democracy Centers will address the problem that Roberts diagnosed.

In an extended interview with Twin Cities Business, Tunheim explained how the centers will fill a gap in civics education and why children and adults need to pay more attention to understanding their government and restoring respect for democratic institutions. He also talked about why it’s essential for the business sector to be able to operate within a functioning democracy.

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The first center is expected to open next year in the federal courthouse in downtown St. Paul, and the second center will be inaugurated a year later in the federal courthouse in Minneapolis.

“The primary reason for doing this is to create a place for school children to come in on field trips with their teachers and learn about the Constitution, to learn about voting, to learn about major cases, to learn about the judiciary, and the importance of judicial independence,” said Tunheim, who has been chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota since 2015.

President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, nominated Tunheim for a federal judgeship in 1995. President George W. Bush, a Republican, nominated Roberts in 2005 to become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Both men were confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

While presidents from two political parties selected Tunheim and Roberts for pivotal roles in the federal judiciary, they share strong, common views about the need to buttress civics education and build trust in democratic institutions.

Tackling a civic education deficit

In recent years, Tunheim said, spending on STEM education has greatly increased, which is a good development for U.S. competitiveness. But he said another trend has had a negative impact on the nation. “We’ve disinvested from education in history, and particularly civics and education about our democratic institutions,” the judge said.

That civics deficit is why Chief Justice Roberts encouraged federal courts to become partners with schools in increasing knowledge about government.

At noon Tuesday, Tunheim will be the featured speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum in downtown Minneapolis. One outgrowth of “neglected civics education among the young people of our country” is that many students cannot even name the three branches of government, Tunheim said.

In addition to explaining why the new Justice & Democracy Centers are needed, Tunheim said he will talk about what they will offer, and “what we hope to inspire and hope to make a difference in the community fabric of Minnesota.”

The St. Paul center will be 1,360 square feet, and the Minneapolis center will be larger at 2,850 square feet. Structural building of the centers — flooring and walls — will be covered by federal funds.

U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim
U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim
It will cost about $1.5 million to create exhibits and install technology in the two centers, according to Rebeccah Parks, public information officer for the U.S. District Court. The court is not allowed to raise money for those expenses. Park said leaders of the Minnesota chapter of the Federal Bar Association are soliciting contributions from businesses, foundations, and other community sources to help support the exhibits and other center costs.

School trips to the centers likely will be taken by students in grades four through nine, although nobody will be excluded from the centers.

“We’re going to populate [each center] with interactive screens that help students understand the Constitution, court cases and how a case proceeds through the judicial system,” Tunheim said. There also are plans to make a film about government that students can watch during their visits.

In conjunction with center visits, Tunheim said, he hopes that students can also enter actual courtrooms. He noted that it would be valuable for students to “watch a real judicial proceeding, and then spend a little time with a judge, so they get a chance to meet a judge, and talk to a judge and ask their questions.”

Demystifying the judicial branch

Bill Hanley, who led the creation of TPT’s long-running “Almanac” program, is working closely with Tunheim on the start up and programming of the two centers. Earlier this year, he became the executive content officer for the centers.

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For many years, Hanley was executive vice president of Minnesota production at TPT, which brought him into contact with judges. In particular, he’s proud of the TPT documentaries that examined how people with developmental disabilities were affected by the legal environment.

“As I was leaving TPT, it just began to bug me that the court is so essential, it is so crucial, and yet it continues to be the one branch of government that is misunderstood,” Hanley said.

Hanley met with Tunheim to explore ways the court could be more visible in community settings, and he helped coordinate a 2019 naturalization ceremony at Allianz Field in St. Paul that Tunheim presided over.

“Everybody’s got their own definition of justice, but justice under the law means something,” Hanley said. “It’s not healthy for this society, especially for young people, to think of judges as being detached, in a robe, and behind a bench. This is not good.”

Just as “Almanac” increased understanding about the Minnesota Legislature, Hanley wants the centers to make progress in demystifying the judicial branch and the judges who serve within it. “[People] need to understand that these are real human beings making real judgments and that those judgments are based on something real and not just something they are making up,” he said.

Beyond the exhibits in the centers, Hanley said the centers will provide a website and host live events. He’s currently collaborating on an event focused on “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” that is likely to be held in March.

Tunheim said some live center events might celebrate the opening of exhibits. Over the years, the District of Minnesota has developed exhibits that have been on display in a given courthouse. Currently, there is one in the Duluth courthouse that commemorates the lynchings that happened in Duluth in 1920. “[We] made sure people knew what a horrific, racial terror event that was and that it didn’t just happen in the South, it happened in Minnesota as well,” Tunheim said.

The judge added that the court traditionally offers a summer program for high school students in which they study the judiciary and other branches of government. He hopes that program can be expanded in connection with the Justice & Democracy Centers.

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Business, media and democracy

Informed and engaged citizens support democratic institutions. Tunheim noted that a functioning democracy also supports a capitalist society.

“Having strong democratic institutions, as our country has had throughout history, has always been an important foundation of our entire business community,” Tunheim said. Businesses need “a fair, independent and responsible judiciary to resolve disputes,” he said, and democratic institutions also “make sure that competition is fair and those with the great ideas and great initiatives can flourish.”

Both the Minnesota Business Partnership and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce have emphasized the important role that immigrants play in the state’s economy. In March, the Minnesota Chamber Foundation released a report that examined “The Economic Contributions of Immigrants in Minnesota.”

Tunheim has elevated the roles that immigrants occupy in Minnesota’s workforce and communities by holding some naturalization ceremonies outside of courtrooms. He will be doing one Tuesday at Westminster Presbyterian Church before he gives his democracy speech. About 25 people will take the oath of allegiance and become new U.S. citizens.

“There is such heated rhetoric about immigration in this day and age,” Tunheim said. “These are wonderful people who have worked very hard to become American citizens.” The court administers oaths to more than 15,000 new citizens in Minnesota every year, he said.

“We have people who have chosen to come to America to become an American citizen, much like our ancestors did a long time ago,” Tunheim said. “It is important for us to get out to the community to do these ceremonies to give it a different side of immigration, a side that celebrates the fact that we are welcoming people, that we need them, we want them, and they are good citizens.”

When Tunheim was a boy growing up in the small town of Newfolden in northwestern Minnesota, many people got their news from daily newspapers and discussed government issues from a common set of facts. From grades five through nine, Tunheim delivered newspapers seven days a week on his bicycle.

“Being a paperboy, I was always proud of the fact that most of the people in town took the daily Minneapolis paper,” he said. “And if you didn’t take the Minneapolis paper, the Star or the Tribune, you took the Grand Forks Herald in the afternoon.”

Bundles of Minneapolis newspapers were tossed off of the Soo Line northbound passenger train, Tunheim said, and he would retrieve them from the depot boardwalk. “Virtually everybody was reading daily newspapers when I was young, and I think that contributed greatly to a sense of the importance of understanding the news, the importance of our democratic institutions and the work that they did,” Tunheim said.

In 2021, many people rely on partisan broadcast media and social media for their news. That reality has fueled “tribalism,” Tunheim said, adding that national trends have adversely affected Minnesota’s decades-long pattern of healthy civic involvement and good government.

“You can see the difficulty of reaching compromises that were much easier to reach a generation ago, particularly if you look at the Legislature,” Tunheim said, “and if you look at the differences among our members of Congress in terms of their viewpoints on issues.”