PUBLISHED:March 13, 2012

Duke Law hosts 2012 N.C. state finals of "We the People"

Duke Law School hosted the North Carolina state finals of the 2012 “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution Competition” on March 9. In a series of simulated congressional hearings, students from six high schools across the state addressed such topics as the philosophical and historical foundations of the American political system and how the values and principles embodied in the Constitution have shaped American institutions and practices. They competed as teams before panels of judges that included Justice Paul Newby of the N.C. Supreme Court ─ also the event’s keynote speaker ─ practitioners, government lawyers, and law and political science faculty from N.C. State, N.C. Central, Campbell, and Duke Universities, including several from Duke Law.

Students from Northwest Guilford High School in Greensboro won first place in the daylong competition, and will go on to represent North Carolina at the National Finals scheduled for April 27 to May 1 in Washington, D.C. The team from Raleigh Charter High School claimed second place.. Fifth-grade students from Durant Road Elementary School in Raleigh made presentations as a showcase team.

Duke Law Professor Joseph Blocher praised the quality of the presentations he heard as a judge. “The students were extremely thoughtful and well-prepared, which allowed us to have an illuminating discussion about American history, politics, and law,” said Blocher. “I hope I’ll have some of them in my constitutional law class a few years down the road, so that we can continue the conversation.” Having once been a member of a We the People N.C. state championship team from Jordan High School in Durham, Blocher added a note of relief that “I didn't have to compete against the students that I judged this week!”

A constitutional scholar, Blocher credits We the People with giving him his first real experience with constitutional argument. “It obviously had a major effect on me,” he said. “All these years later, I’m still thinking through the same issues ─ what it means to have a constitution, what principles it embodies, and so on.”

Duke Professor of Law and Political Science Neil Siegel, a scholar of constitutional law and the federal courts, also credits his teenage participation in the program with nurturing his nascent interest in those areas.

“My high school social studies teacher, Gloria Sesso, still calls me ‘Publius.’ She put me on this path,” said Siegel, who eventually led his team to a second-place finish at Nationals. “I doubt I would be doing what I'm doing if not for this program.” Siegel serves as the We the People subcommittee chair of the Law-Related Education Committee of the N.C. Bar Association, which coordinates the state competition. He helped organize and judge the Duke competition and will serve as a judge at the national finals on Capitol Hill.

The primary goal of We the People, developed by the Center for Civic Education, is to promote civic competence and responsibility among the nation’s post-secondary, secondary, middle, and upper elementary students. The program focuses on the history and principles of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and is administered with the assistance of state-level coordinators.

“One of the greatest threats to our democracy is a frequent unfamiliarity with the basic principles upon which our nation was founded,” Justice Newby wrote in a statement to the competitors. “Through this experience of studying our federal Constitution, you have a fresh appreciation for the importance of civic education and responsibility.”

The 2012 North Carolina state finals were co-sponsored by the North Carolina Bar Association Foundation and Duke Law School. In addition to the teams noted above, competitors came from Forest Hills High School in Marchville, JP Knapp Early College in Currituck, North Hills Christian High School in Salisbury, and Camp Lejeune High School at Camp Lejeune.