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Innocent landowners, voir dire and Tracey Thurman — they’re just three of the terms the Connecticut Judicial Branch hopes to add to the vocabularies of high school students through an ambitious instructional program it is developing for classrooms in the state. The curriculum project, entitled “Connecticut Courts,” aims to arm students with an in-depth knowledge of the court system; how judges use case law to decide criminal and civil disputes; and the relationships between the courts and other branches of government. Judicial Branch officials began drafting the curriculum in response to a 1998 survey of the public’s confidence in state courts. An alarming number of participants admitted they didn’t know enough about the system to have an informed opinion of it. “A lot of people don’t know much about the Judicial Branch, and part of it is our fault,” acknowledged Chief Court Administrator Robert C. Leuba. When Leuba attended high school, civics was a widely taught subject, he said. Although some classes still take courthouse tours, many students finish high school with little, if any, knowledge of how courts operate, he added. The curriculum project would work in concert with other Judicial Branch efforts to educate Connecticut’s citizenry. It also would help school districts meet a requirement — enacted by the General Assembly this year — that high school students complete a course in civics before graduation, according to Melissa A. Farley, director of the Judicial Branch’s external affairs division. MAKING BETTER JURORS In addition to Hartford Superior Court Senior Judge John P. Maloney, Farley and other court officials, the team drafting the curriculum includes high school social studies teachers, a history professor at the University of Connecticut, and an educational consultant from the Justice Education Center. The nonprofit organization, which provides research and information on issues related to criminal justice, is coordinating the project. The group is currently putting the finishing touches on the curriculum’s third and final segment. Once completed, the program will be submitted to a focus group of teachers. Farley said if all goes as planned, the course will begin in the fall of 2001. School districts that use the curriculum would decide at what grade-level the program would be taught. It is designed, however, to be easily incorporated into high-school government or U.S. history classes in seven 40-minute segments or three 90-minute blocks. The first of the three units would focus on the Amistad case and instruct students on legal principles and social pressures that affect the judicial process. The difference between criminal and civil law, the roles of the three branches of government, and how each branch is impacted by public opinion would be tackled in the curriculum’s second segment. As part of that lesson, student would analyze a fictitious case derived from Susan S. Starr’s seven-year odyssey through the state Department of Environmental Protection, the courts and the legislature, which ended in 1993 when state lawmakers created an “innocent landowner defense” for those who inherit polluted property. The final unit would deal with the responsibilities of lawyers, judges and juries, as well as other courthouse personnel such as family relations officers and bail commissioners. Leuba said an estimated two million people visit Connecticut courts each year as litigants, prospective jurors or witnesses. “We need them to be educated before they get here,” he added. In addition, Leuba said he hopes the curriculum will fuel students’ eagerness to fulfill their jury duty obligations as adults.

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