By William Cracraft
Five of the seven winners from the Ninth Circuit’s sixth annual circuit-wide civics contest met virtually in early July to respond to questions by judges on their experience creating their winning essays and video addressing the question, “What does our American community ask of us?” Watch the complete video here.
There were nearly 1,000 entries from across the Ninth Circuit from which the winners were selected. The essays and video were impressive in their analysis of the question and the depth of thought put into them by their creators, but members of the Public Information and Community Outreach Committee (PICO), which sponsors the contest, wanted to know more about the creators’ journeys. To that end, five winners joined a video meeting to answer questions on what prompted them to enter the contest, what challenges they faced and what advice they would give to future contestants.
The meeting was hosted by District Judge Janis L. Sammartino, of the Southern District of California, chair of the PICO Committee, and she was joined by fellow committee members District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam, Jr., of the Northern District of California, Bankruptcy Judge Mary Jo Heston of the Western District of Washington and Bankruptcy Judge Sandra R. Klein, of the Central District of California, who queried the students. Circuit Executive Elizabeth (Libby) A. Smith joined the meeting to thank the students for their efforts on behalf of Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas and spoke briefly on the quality of the entries and the value of the contest in educating students about the judiciary.
Judge Sammartino noted the challenges presented by the need to work alone due to COVID-19 restrictions and introduced the five winners who were able to attend the session: Isabella Widrow (essay, first place), Madeline Day (essay, second place), Jin Chung (essay, third place) and the team of Jiatian Yin and Marc Garba (video, third place). Brenden Bird (video, first place) and Teah Simon (video, second place) were unable to attend.
Judge Klein started off by asking Widrow what motivated her to enter the contest. Widrow replied that she was interested in both law and government and has explored the other two branches but noted “I haven’t really had the opportunity … to dive into the judicial branch and (the contest) allowed me to further explore that aspect.”
In response to a question by Judge Gilliam, Day noted that one challenge she faced was sorting through the mass of data related to her research. “I was constantly trying to not sound as though I was listing off evidence, so I had to step back to try to add a little bit of my own narrative argument into the piece.”
Chung agreed the mass of material was a challenge. “There was so much evidence out there I had a hard time nailing down a final draft: what do I want to keep, what do I want to push out. That actually took longer than writing the essay, itself,” he said.
Yin also noted the difficulty of deciding what to discard for their video. “The amount of information you can fit into the media you present is definitely an issue,” he said. “We only had a maximum of five minutes. One of the things we were considering was talking about the Red Scare and how that was kind of a failure to balance the natural liberties of the citizen and the greater good of the nation.” He also noted the difficulties in editing video from two different locations.
Fellow videographer Garba added “Locating and facilitating interviews was much easier before the pandemic. Nowadays, even if you email many people, and with the easy outlet of Zoom, it is still an arduous process.”
Judge Heston then asked what the students would have done differently that could help those who enter the contest next year. Widrow responded that contestants should remain flexible as they research their topic. “Don’t be afraid to change your mind,” she said. “I started out thinking I would write an essay talking about the importance of the state’s emergency powers in times of crisis, but I found information about the Patriot Act and Yetta Stromberg—Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359 (1931), and I was, like, I can’t argue for this kind of power, especially when it has been used in a way that violates the equal protection principle. So, of course, be decisive in your final draft, but also don’t be afraid to change your thinking as you process new information.”
Yin also offered cogent advice. “a very simple thing to keep in mind is to try to understand the reasoning behind the prompt (topic). I don’t know what next year’s prompt will be, but I’m pretty sure it will definitely relate to something that is going on in that moment, at that time. For example, this one, for me there was a clear relation to the pandemic and how there was constant fighting between people in society between wearing a mask, for example, or getting the vaccine. So regardless of what the topic is, just try to relate it somehow to what is happening “today.”
One of the final questions was how the process had affected their thinking about the judiciary or Constitution. Garba, noting his parents emigrated from Eastern Europe at the beginning of this century, said “In Europe and other countries, the existence of the country is there before the constitution. The United States wasn’t a country until the Constitution itself was created and ratified and that to me is just a unique version of what the United States is.”
Judge Sammartino wrapped up the proceedings noting to the contestants, “This committee could not be prouder of what you have accomplished here. You participated in a contest that included the entire Ninth Circuit, which is the largest circuit in the United States, and you are at the top of the heap. It is very clear to me why. You are bright, you are thoughtful, you are articulate, you are creative in what you did, and you gave wonderful advice for those coming after you.”