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VOL. 127 | NO. 22 | Thursday, February 02, 2012

MBA To Spend Year Educating Public on Law

By Andy Meek

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The Memphis Bar Association is gearing up for a major public outreach program in the form of an educational campaign.

Gary Smith, the 2012 president of the attorneys’ group, along with secretary Tommy Parker and member Porter Feild, have developed a program they’re calling “Law Rules: The Importance of the American Legal System.”

It’s essentially a crash course in civics with a heavy focus on the importance of the rule of law and of an independent judiciary. MBA members over the coming months will be fanning out to audiences throughout the area – to every school, church, business group, political organization and civic entity that will have them.

The MBA’s goal is 200 speaking engagements in 2012 as part of this program.

“We want to go wherever people will have us,” said Smith, an attorney with Apperson Crump PLC.

Already, some 50 attorneys have volunteered their time to participate in the speaking engagements, and Smith said he won’t be surprised if that number quickly swells to 100.

At a training session for the program held earlier this week, the assembled lawyers were told the purpose of the “Law Rules” campaign is to provide factual, non-partisan information about the judicial branch of government and the role played by lawyers and judges.

According to an outline of that presentation, the campaign is not an attempt to steer audiences toward a particular point of view, nor a forum to debate hot-button issues or even an attempt to whitewash current problems facing the judicial system, such as access to justice by those who can’t afford it.

“Part of the purpose of the bar association is for lawyers to provide education to the public on topics we have particularized knowledge about, and that’s what’s led us to take on this effort,” said Feild, a member with Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC.

“This isn’t a partisan effort. And this isn’t necessarily standing up for the current system. It’s just providing information on what the current system is.”

Points that will be emphasized, according to the recent training session:

When the Founding Fathers established the federal court system, they created a branch of government accountable to the law and not to political interests.

A fair and impartial judiciary is essential to democracy.

The United States is a country governed by the rule of law, not the rule of men.

The law and judicial system have been instruments of change for the betterment of society.

And lawyers and judges recognize there are challenges facing the judicial system, but they’re actively seeking to address them.

“I believe that our message will be well-received even as we recognize that the general public’s attitude toward the judicial branch of government is founded largely by lack of exposure to it,” Smith said. “That lack of exposure leads to lack of understanding, and that is a gap that we can and should eradicate.”

The campaign comes at a timely moment because judicial issues are currently a hot topic in Tennessee. Earlier this month, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell said they will introduce legislation in support of a constitutional amendment that keeps the state away from popular election of Supreme Court and appeals judges.

The state’s current system has been blessed as legal. But a solid block of Republican state lawmakers has long criticized it as out of step with the state constitution, which says Supreme Court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.”

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