Veterans Day Op-Ed, by State Bar of Texas President Buck Files

If you had been at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on October 9, you might have been curious as to the VIP’s who were being interviewed by television crews and visited with by other passengers. Were they politicians or movie stars or successful businessmen? No, they were World War II veterans who were participating in the Honor Flight Program that would fly them to our nation’s capital so that they could see the World War II Memorial. These veterans were part of “the Greatest Generation.” They are all truly treasures of our nation as are all of those who have served our great country through military service.

On Veterans Day, there will be parades and ceremonies and speeches and veterans of all our wars will be honored. During their service, all lived the words of President John F. Kennedy: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

And then the parades and ceremonies and speeches will be over and it will be another year before some Americans remember or have any concern for the 22.7 million veterans who live in these United States, including the more than 1.7 million who live in Texas. While all of us know somebody who served, we rarely think about what happens to these men and women when they are no longer in the military. We know that some of them use benefits to get an education. We know that there are Veterans Hospitals and Veterans Offices where other kinds of support is available. We don’t really know what assistance exists but we assume that it is adequate.

Only about one-half of one percent of our population is currently serving on active duty. We have an all-volunteer military but that does not in any way diminish their service to our country. To be sure, our nation has responded to assist veterans with programs on the local, state and national levels. Many of those benefits, without question, help – but far too many of our veterans continue to require assistance with medical, housing, employment, and post-traumatic stress disorder issues. Numerous organizations and non-profits have been created to help our veterans. All of these programs are needed and used. As a country, we owe it to our veterans — who have risked everything to protect our democracy — to treat them like the heroes that they are.

Two years ago, the State Bar of Texas recognized that there was a hole in services for veterans and launched Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans. Lawyers across our state have volunteered to provide free assistance to veterans and their families who cannot afford basic legal services. Lawyer organizations have joined with the Veterans Commission, the Veterans Administration, and others to do their part to help our veterans. Through clinics coordinated by our local bar associations, Texas lawyers have served more than 6,000 veterans since 2010 and our program continues to grow. You can find out more about this program at texasbar.com/veterans.

On this Veterans Day, let us do more than honor the men and women who have served to protect our rights and freedom. Let us make a commitment to our veterans that they will receive the assistance that they need and deserve. They earned it.

Buck Files, a criminal defense lawyer from Tyler, is president of the State Bar of Texas. He served on active duty in the United States Marine Corps from December, 1963 until August, 1967.

Constitution Day Op-Ed, Sept. 2012 - by State Bar President Buck Files

We hear a lot of talk these days about the U.S. Constitution and how important it is to protecting our liberties. But surveys continue to show a disturbing trend of many Americans not understanding the Constitution and its relevance to our lives today. After all, with all the technology we have now, why should we care about a document that was written 225 years ago on parchment and with a feather quill pen?

For starters, just imagine life without the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights guarantees some of our most precious liberties, including freedom of religion, speech, and press, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and private property rights. The Constitution created the framework for a strong but limited national government and established the fundamental rights of all U.S. citizens.

Our Constitution is the foundation of the legal authority for our nation and federal government, and it also established the system of checks and balances with three branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial.  This separation of powers was crucial to the framers of the Constitution – and still is today – to prevent an oppressive government similar to what the British enacted on colonial America.

Although written long ago, the Constitution is as relevant to our lives today as ever. For example, the Constitution is the governing document that lets us post messages on Facebook, Twitter, and watch videos on YouTube. It also allows us to have differing opinions, enjoy the freedom to express them on blogs or elsewhere and even demonstrate peacefully.

To emphasize the importance of Americans understanding the Constitution, Congress has designated Sept. 17 as Constitution Day to commemorate the signing of the document in 1787. The legislation requires educational institutions that receive federal funding to implement programs to teach students about the Constitution.

While it’s appropriate to learn about and celebrate the Constitution on this day, we also should take this time to renew our focus on civics education in our schools and society. Today’s young people soon will be voting, sitting on juries and running for political office, and they must have the civics knowledge to make informed decisions and be engaged citizens. Research has shown that individuals who receive a solid civics education are more likely to be involved in their communities through activities such as volunteering and voting.

In today’s economy, the need for math, reading, writing and science knowledge is obvious, but civics education is an essential part of a comprehensive education. It is also essential to develop informed, effective and responsible citizens. Our future depends on individuals who understand their history and government, have a sense of what it means to be an American, and know their rights and responsibilities as a citizen.

“The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have,” said retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a longtime civics education advocate.  “And we have to start with the education of our nation’s young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.”

Justice O’Connor is right that we have some work to do.

We are seeing increasing evidence that civics education is not a priority in America, and state and federal funding of programs designed to teach students about our heritage has been cut. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that less than one-third of U.S. fourth, eighth, and 12th grade students are proficient in civics.

Educating the public about the rule of law is part of the State Bar of Texas’ mission. For more than 26 years, the State Bar’s Law-Related Education program has been training educators on civics education programs and curriculum. As funding for civics education continues to decline, the Bar’s programs are more important than ever. Lesson plans focused on Constitution Day can be found on www.texaslre.org.

In the past year alone, LRE has trained more than 6,800 teachers and had an impact on more than 450,000 Texas students.  Another recent addition to Law-Related Education’s resources is, “Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay! Civics Resources for Texas Students and Teachers.”  The web-based resource assists students and teachers in studying the landmark court cases that students need to know for the TEKS test. The site, texasbar.com/civics, includes videos, educational games, case summaries, lesson plans and numerous links to curriculum materials and other resources. And, this is just the beginning.  The State Bar continues to enhance the program and “Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay!” will continue to be a part of public school curriculum for the next 12 years.

On this Constitution Day, let’s all re-dedicate ourselves to learning more about our heritage and encourage our children to do the same. An engaged citizenry is essential to preserving our rights and freedom, and sustaining our system of government.

Buck Files, a criminal defense lawyer from Tyler, is president of the State Bar of Texas.