Editorial: Importance of civic participation

Published: 7/1/2018 4:48:52 PM

Editor’s Note:This is the seventh in a series of guest editorials running between now and July 4, our nation’s Independence Day. These essays were solicited by the Franklin County League of Women Voters for The Recorder from several especially knowledgeable and experienced members of our community, about issues as important to America today as they were when our country was born with our forefather’s Declaration of Independence nearly 250 years ago.

Let us declare the power of the judiciary, to declare its beauty, its impact, its importance.
Before you skip over this opinion in favor of another, please indulge. Let’s pretend, for a minute, that participation is essential to democracy (because it is). Let’s pretend, for a minute, that democracy only works when the public is engaged (because it does).

A bit louder for those of you in the cheap seats:

Participation is instrumental to democracy. In other words, democracy doesn’t work unless the citizenry participates.

And whatever your political persuasion, you don’t have to look very far to see the effects of a disengaged electorate.

If you’ll continue to indulge — as most of us are reasonably removed from our high school history classes — our government is divided into three branches, so divided as to provide a system of checks and balances. We have, at both state and federal level, a legislature, an executive branch, and a judiciary. The legislature (at the federal level, Congress; at the state level, the Massachusetts General Court) is charged with writing the laws. The Executive Branch (the president; at the state level, the governor) implements and enforces the laws. And the judiciary (the courts) interpret the Constitution and sets limits on the powers of the other branches. The news media is often thought of as the “fourth estate,” or in a sense, an informal fourth branch of government. And if you’re reading this you probably agree. If you’re reading a newspaper you are more engaged than a majority of your counterparts, and may be wondering why the heavy-handed civics lesson.

The judiciary’s role is less visible than that of the other branches of government, but it’s no less important. Pick an issue of significance that intersects with the rights — voting rights, immigration, taxes, crime, education, reproductive rights, health care: judges wield significant control over the state of the law in the commonwealth and throughout these United States. So whatever your political persuasion, the power of the judicial branch of government over your life is beyond dispute. Yet according to a 2017 C-SPAN survey, only 43 percent of Americans can name a sitting Supreme Court Justice. I’d venture that far fewer of us can name a sitting judge in our home district. I write this not to shame, but to highlight our stake in who ends up on the bench.

At the federal level, and here in Massachusetts, judges are appointed by those elected to office. And unlike their elected counterparts in the executive branch and the legislature, judges are appointed for life (or in Massachusetts, until a mandatory retirement age of 70). So if you want to have a voice in your democracy, if you want to have any sort of impact, at minimum, you must vote as if our future depends on it — because it does.

It’s easy, in the face of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and near-historic lows in public trust of government, to want to wash our hands of the entire enterprise. But it’s for these flawed facts that voting is so urgently needed. The public is disaffected, and there are many reasons. But when we opt out of voting, the effects are long-lasting and dire; it is under these conditions that democracy erodes.

Civic participation is essential, not only for its effect on who winds up in our legislatures, the governor’s office and the White House, but for those unelected judicial lifers whose work has a deep and lasting impact on our social fabric. So if you’re eligible to vote, vote. And when your name is called to sit on a jury, go. (You should consider a run for office, too, but that’s better left for another column.)

This essay was written by Adina Giannelli is a writer, educator, and nonprofit professional. She lives in Conway.


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