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The outside of UNM's School of Law. Courtesy of UNM School of Law.

UNM law school educates high schoolers on constitutional rights

Each year, the University of New Mexico School of Law students go to local high schools to teach constitutional law through the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project.

After observing a national decline in civic education, the program was conceptualized by professors at American University 25 years ago in Washington, D.C., Maryam Ahranjan said, director of the UNM chapter of the project and School of Law professor. Currently, only seven U.S. states require a full year of civics education, not including New Mexico, according to the Institute for Citizens and Scholars.

“It's especially powerful in a place like Albuquerque where the law school occupies a unique and important space in terms of promoting civic and constitutional knowledge,” Ahranjani said.

The course focuses on practical application and project-based learning, going over cases that call high school students' constitutional rights into question. The law school fellows design the lesson plans with both lectures and projects to help contextualize the law, Abby Lutz – a third year law student and program assistant – said.

“Being able to teach (constitutional law) to students at a younger age employs them with the knowledge to know what rights they have inherently, and to be aware and on the lookout in case anyone's trying to violate their rights, or give them the knowledge and the skills on what to use if they're in that situation,” Lutz said.

By demystifying and breaking down constitutional rights, the program gets back at the original intent of public education – creating a politically informed, engaged public, Ahranjani said.

“The Constitution is a really powerful and important guiding document for our country and for our government,” Ahranjani said. “For us, as individual citizens who the (constitutional authors) knew, we're at a disadvantage relative to the government,   which has more resources, power and knowledge.  It's especially important that we are activating that document.”

The course culminates with a moot court where high school students are given a hypothetical case surrounding their constitutional rights to argue to a panel of judges and apply the concepts taught in class. The highest scoring students then attend the Marshall-Brennan moot court in Washington, D.C.

“We hope that we are arming students with the skills to think critically, to look at sources to make arguments that are based on, in this context, the things that really matter – such as prior case law — and hopefully give them some tools to be better informed citizens,” Ahranjani said.

Long term, Ahranjani said she hopes the project will funnel in a new generation of law students.

“We have an underrepresentation of particular groups in society, including Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans. Our goal was really twofold: to educate students about their civic and constitutional rights, and secondly to increase the pipeline of diverse students into the legal profession,” Ahranjani said.

The legal profession is predominantly white, according to a 2022 survey from the American Bar Association. A classist and exclusionary culture, both in the legal profession and educational system, has allowed the lack of diversity in the field to persist, according to Reuters.

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Students encounter the impacts of constitutional rights every day in high school, Lutz said. For example, the books that are being taught bring up the First Amendment, which grants the right to freedom of speech. Who can search a student’s belongings utilizes the Fourth Amendment which protects against unreasonable search and seizures.

“Every day in every activity you do, your rights are implicated,” Lutz said.

Overall, the goal of the course is to inspire a passion for law and give students the tools and knowledge necessary to exercise their rights and hold others — including teachers, administrators or law enforcement — accountable to the law.

“When people aren't aware of what rights they have, it's really easy for people to take advantage of it and violate them,” Lutz said.

Maddie Pukite is the editor-in-chief at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at on Twitter @maddogpukite

Maddie Pukite

Maddie Pukite is the 2023-2024 editor of the Daily Lobo. 

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