from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1995

Reviewing a high-school book in social studies

It's the Law! --
A Young Person's Guide to Our Legal System

1994. 187 pages. ISBN: 1-884244-01-7.
Volcano Press, Inc., P.O. Box 270, Volcano, California 95689.

Though This Is a Poor Book,
It Has Some Useful Chapters

Albie Burke

It's the Law!, by Annette Carrel, comes in two versions. One is meant for use by students, presumably as an assigned text. The other, subtitled Facilitator's Guide, is meant for instructors; it includes an introductory statement and a mock-trial script that do not appear in the student's text, and it offers a somewhat larger glossary. In all other respects, the two versions are identical.

Judging from the writing and presentation, I would infer that this book is aimed at students in the elementary grades.

In the introduction to the Facilitator's Guide, Carrel says that the purpose of It's the Law! is "to present to young people a look into our country's justice system and to involve them in the idea of the legal process." She also expresses the hope that "young people will not to be preached to," and she says that students "should not have to listen to an adult who interprets this material according to his or her personal ethic or viewpoint." Carrel herself, however, seems to observe both these injunctions in the breach. The text of It's the Law! is so preachy that it is reminiscent of a Romper Room program, and it is replete with personal commentary that often is ill-conceived and misinformed.

Student Theater

The most serviceable parts of It's the Law! are chapters 10 through 14, plus the mock-trial script in the Facilitator's Guide. Chapters 10 through 14 describe, in a step-by-step manner, what a juvenile offender might experience during an encounter with the criminal-justice system, from arrest through conviction and sentencing. The chapter titles are illustrative: "When People Break the Law," "Under Arrest!," "The Right to a Trial," "What Happens at a Trial" and "Juvenile Justice." The mock-trial script covers much of the same ground. Using the script, students can perform a little play that represents the trial of a defendant who has been accused of theft; the roles include witnesses, attorneys, the judge, the bailiff, the defendant, and the members of the jury. This play can be put to good use as student theater, and it is the sort of thing that many young people delight in doing.

The rest of the book is not as useful. Chapters 1 through 9 -- with titles such as "What Is Law?" and "Justice" and "Why Do We Need Laws?" -- purport to introduce students to the theory and purpose of law. Here, however, the author has underestimated the educational opportunities that such topics afford, and she has misunderstood, in a serious way, the philosophical dimensions of her subject.

The concept of law presented in these chapters revolves around control -- indeed, chapter 4 is entitled "Control" and it opens with a description of prisoners in handcuffs and ankle-irons. But even if control is the purpose of the rules that govern classrooms and school playgrounds, control is not what our legal system, in general, is about. The view urged in It's the Law! can scarcely describe or explain the dynamic role that law plays in American society. Given the emphasis that Carrel has put on the juvenile offender (in her middle chapters and in the mock-trial script), she would have done well to confine herself to discussing the criminal-justice system only, without presenting her speculations about other jurisprudential realms. She has reached too far, and the results include incoherence and a lot of silly posturing.

Misreadings and Mistakes

The closing chapters (i.e., chapters 15 through 18) discuss the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and here the author's political biases are displayed in full color. Consider this commentary about the Declaration, in chapter 16:

Do realize that this declaration stated that people are endowed with the right to the pursuit of happiness. It did not say that all have the right to happiness [emphasis in the original]. It did not say that the government must make you happy. It did not say that you have the right to be happy at anyone's expense. It meant that you have the right to earn, or find, or create (to pursue) happiness for yourself.

At best, that is a strange gloss to offer when discussing the Declaration, especially because the Declaration's central ideas are equality and natural rights.

Serious misreadings are displayed when Carrel attempts to discuss various provisions of the Constitution. In chapter 17, for example, she correctly quotes Section 1 of the Fourth Amendment, but she interprets it in a preposterous way. Here is what Section 1 says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall be issued but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Carrel's commentary on the section is this: "The seizure part of the amendment meant that a person could not be arrested except by a warrant sworn for that purpose." Quite obviously, however, the Section does not refer to arrests or to the conditions under which a person can be arrested. It deals with restrictions on the government's effort to find and collect evidence of wrongdoing. Put simply, it states the conditions under which a person's house can be searched.

What Carrel says about the Fourteenth Amendment is equally misleading. The important provisions of that amendment are three clauses in Section 1: the privileges-of-citizenship clause (which was intended, in part, to overrule the Dred Scott decision), the due-process clause (by which most provisions of the Bill of Rights have been applied to the states), and the equal-protection clause (which has become the basis of most of our civil-rights law that deters discrimination based upon race or gender). Carrel quotes the entire amendment, but she does not offer any commentary about those powerful clauses in Section 1. She focuses instead on Section 2, a passage that has never been applied or enforced! Section 2 was meant to protect the voting rights of freedmen in the South and to ensure that black males would be included in the nation's body politic, which at that time consisted only of males aged 21 or older. (The section was never applied because a more specific form of protection was provided, two years later, by the Fifteenth Amendment). Now, what are Carrel's comments about all of this? She tells students to note that "the amendment" spoke only of males, and that it did not extend the franchise to women! Her second comment is frivolous, and her first comment wrong: Section 2 dealt only with males, but Section 1 -- the paramount part of the amendment -- applied to all "persons" and all "citizens."


Rather than purchasing It's the Law! for use as a classroom text, a school district may want to buy a copy for the district library, so that material in chapters 10 through 14 will be available to teachers who must prepare lectures about the criminal-justice system. The district may also want to negotiate with the publisher of It's the Law! for rights to reproduce and use the trial script.

Teachers who desire more information about procedure will profit from reading American Civil Procedure: An Introduction, by Geoffry C. Hazard, Jr., and Michele Taruffo. Published in 1993 by Yale University Press (New Haven, Connecticut), this book is meant for a general audience. It will be useful to teachers at all levels, from elementary schools to community colleges, and it contains material that will be particularly interesting to high-school students who are thinking of becoming lawyers.

For authentic case materials -- texts of some actual cases, along with instructors' guides that explain the issues involved and show how to engage students in the workings of our legal system -- teachers should turn to the Youth for Justice program sponsored by the Center for Civic Education (in Calabasas, California).

A Good Supplementary Text,
Despite Its Puerile Sermons

James M. Wagstaffe

It's the Law!, a supplementary text for use in high-school civics and government classes, was written by Annette Carrel. A blurb on the book's back cover says that Carrel has worked for many years as a docent at a local courthouse -- and indeed, I find that It's the Law! has everything that one might expect of a docent: It is informative, engaging, simplistic, perky and homilistic, and it is filled with cheer-leading for American values.

From the beginning to the end of her book, Carrel speaks in the first person to her audience of students, professing to tell them about laws, about consequences of breaking laws, and about our legal system itself. Overall, she succeeds in achieving these goals, although her simplistic presentations and homilies may repel older high-school students who resent lectures by seemingly "out-of-touch" adults.

The book does not begin with a bang. The brief introductory chapters on "What Is a Law?," "Justice," "Control," and "Why Do We Need Laws?" are so simple-minded that most high-school students will probably find them condescending. For example, Carrel writes that laws are "mostly invisible," that "[the] word justice is not very large, yet it stands for one of the most valuable gifts you possess," and that "When people came to this new land called America, they wanted a form of government that would treat all persons equally." Her tone recalls the sing-song style of a tour guide, and she patronizes her readers with comments like this: "[DNA testing] is pretty heavy science for you, and most adults haven't yet learned enough to understand it. It is new and it is exciting, and it is part of your future world. Let's see if I can explain just enough to let you understand. The letters DNA stand for a big word, deoxyribonucleic acid. . . ."

But as many tour guides do, Carrel also makes an excellent effort to provide information that resonates with her audience's interests and experiences. In choosing her topics and examples, she focuses on matters that are relevant to the lives of high-school students: driving, drugs, computers and the juvenile-justice system.

In chapter 10 Carrel nicely summarizes the actions for which a person can be arrested, and in chapter 12 ("The Right to a Trial") she clearly defines the players in civil and criminal cases. These explanations are supported by the book's excellent and comprehensive glossary of legal terms -- a thirteen-page section that, by itself, makes It's the Law! a good buy.

Carrel is at her best, though, when she leads the reader through a representative trial. In chapter 13 she provides a straightforward description of what happens at a trial, and in chapter 14 she explains juvenile justice in a relevant way. She begins with a short history of the juvenile-justice system, then she tells about how juvenile cases are classified, how juvenile offenses are treated, and how judges use probation in sentencing juvenile offenders.

Blunders and Bromides

As one might expect in a law book by a person who isn't a lawyer, It's the Law! occasionally presents statements that are wrong. For example, Carrel incorrectly says that in some communities, a grand-jury proceeding has replaced a preliminary hearing (before a magistrate) as a means of instituting felony cases. In a similarly mistaken fashion, she says that small-claims jurisdiction is limited to $1,000, and that a civil suit can be brought in a federal district court only if the amount in controversy exceeds $10,000; the correct number, in each instance, is five times greater. And on page 79, Carrel naively says that "All accused persons have a right to a defense -- the best defense our government can provide, whether they can pay for it or not." While that is indeed the law of the land, derived from the Supreme Court's ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, even a casual examination of routine felony cases discloses that our public defenders are overworked and underfunded, and that the Supreme Court's vision is rarely realized.

Carrel's errors, however, aren't nearly as hard to take as her little Fourth-of-July sermons about patriotism and citizenship. For example:

In order to get elected, [a] candidate must have the votes of people like you. Do not give your vote away without thinking. You are very special, and powerful. Get involved! [page 19]

It is possible that some people would use their vote, their power, to make bad laws. Thank heavens there are also many good-thinking citizens who, like you, can make sure that bad laws don't happen. [page 43]

Sure, [your friends] may think you are real tough, that you did real good. But while you are sitting in jail, they are out in the sunshine saying how cool you were. Well, jail is not cool. [page 49]

Children are indeed people. But children are not just very short adults, they are different. Children are thought about in special ways when we discuss their needs, their rights, and the law. [page 104]

Each challenge [to our justice system] is serious, especially to the group making it. We must watch and be informed and participate. Don't sit back and just let everyone else care. [page 115]

Do realize that [the Declaration of Independence] stated that people are endowed with the right to the pursuit of happiness. It did not say that all have the right to happiness. It did not say that the government must make you happy. It did not say that you have the right to be happy at anyone's expense. It meant that you have the right to earn, or find, or create (to pursue) happiness for yourself. No one owes happiness to you. Your rights must be shared with all people who also have those same rights. [page 119]

There's no doubt that such material will be reassuring to Middle America's parents, but Carrel's sermons oversimplify pivotal concepts and will probably sound like white noise to the many teenagers who dislike moralistic lectures of any kind.

A Strong Finish

Carrel redeems herself by providing a good appendix that includes not only her helpful glossary but also a group of activities and hypothetical cases for discussion and analysis. There's nothing passive about these exercises; Carrel asks her readers to ponder a number of provocative, instructive situations. On page 157, for example, she presents "The Case of the Tall Ladder": A person hired a workman to repair her roof, and the workman left his tall ladder standing against her house; then a teenager, trying to retrieve an errant ball, climbed the ladder, fell, and was fatally injured. Who was responsible? This raises excellent questions of tort law, in a context that is readily understandable to young students.

It's the Law! cannot serve as a primary text for a high-school civics class, because it is much too cursory in its consideration of how laws are made, how laws are changed, and how law defines the branches and the functions of our government. But as a tour through our judicial system, with an outline of terms and concepts, it is a superior supplementary text. It can be used in any high-school or middle-school course that includes a segment about government or law.

Albie Burke, a specialist in the constitutional and legal history of the United States, is a professor in the Department of History at California State University, Long Beach. He is also an associate editor of The History Teacher, the quarterly of the Society for History Education.

James M. Wagstaffe is a constitutional lawyer, a specialist in First Amendment cases, and a partner in the law firm of Cooper, White & Cooper (San Francisco).


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