We the People by Judge Leonard Padilla

Sep 09, 2015 / E-news, We the People
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“What procedural due process rights should be granted to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay?”

Usually, as a workers’ compensation judge, I’m not called upon to ponder such issues. My mind tends to be focused on impairment ratings, modifiers, and disability. Today, however, I’m sitting in a large lecture hall at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., thinking of follow-up questions to ask a panel of “experts” who just finished a rapid fire opening statement of their view on constitutional law—specifically the Bill of Rights.

In this instance, the “experts” are high school students, exceptionally bright and outgoing, who practically beg for more opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of the Constitution, past and present. In their opening statement of this mock congressional hearing, the student panelists make reference to the Magna Carta, Locke, Rousseau, de Tocqueville, and the Federalist Papers. Now, I ask them to apply their historical understanding to the present. They do not disappoint; as one student eagerly begins to answer the question, she receives quick and able support from her colleagues.

I’m volunteering as a judge at the national finals of the We The People competition held on April 25 and 26, 2015, sponsored by the Center for Civic Education which, according to its mission statement, is dedicated to promoting an enlightened and responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy in the United States.

I have acted as a We The People judge at the state level for many years.  This past year, following the state finals in December, the statewide coordinator for New Mexico nominated me to judge the national finals.  There are 71 other judges from around the country participating with me. I am paired with a district court judge from Erie, Pa. and with the treasurer of the Montpelier Foundation in Virginia. There are 56 schools competing (including some from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska). In addition to the students (six teams from each school) and teachers, many schools have large followings of family and supporters.

Over two days, we judge teams from 28 schools, ranging from Hawaii to Vermont. Some teams, as described earlier, are polished and eager, even when it is six o’clock in the morning in their time zone. Other teams are shy and unsure; they look nervously at their notes while the opening question is read to them.  Each team has four minutes to respond to the opening question and most rely on notes prepared beforehand. Then, the students put away their notes and respond to follow-up questions from the judges.

As soon as the hearing is finished, we shake hands (or bump fists) with the students and teachers and find a place in the hallway to sit and enter numbers onto the score sheets for each team. Then our facilitator (whom we affectionately call “Mother”) is on the move. Mother’s  job is to keep us on track and on time, taking us to the next classroom. This is an intense time and the hearings happen quickly, but before we know it, our time is up and we turn in our score sheets. We wait to learn (via Facebook and Twitter) which top 10 teams will be going to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., for the finals on Monday.

Me? I have a workers’ compensation trial in Albuquerque on Tuesday, so I travel to National Airport for my flight. In the distance, I see the Washington Monument. Nearby that monument to one of our nation’s visionary founders, I know extremely bright and motivated young citizens are competing to remain true to the founders’ vision. As Thomas Jefferson stated, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.”

This weekend, I too have been informed.

Leonard Padilla is a judge for the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration. This article was originally published in the Quarterly Bulletin of the State of New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration and is used here with permission.

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