Civil Discourse Is the Only Recourse for Democracy

I narrowed my eyes attentively as I watched Mateo* deliver his testimony, scribbling down a quote in my notepad before returning my gaze to the stand. I empathized with the look of defeat on his face; Mateo was discernibly anxious, stumbling over his words as he emphasized and re-emphasized that he had internalized the gravity of his actions. He finished his distressed plea for a second chance, and he was escorted back to his seat. Both sides promptly finished their closing statements, and within the next few minutes, us members of the jury hurried into another room to deliberate.

We are all teen volunteers for our county’s Peer Court program. Under its model, local youth found guilty of misdemeanors are diverted from the traditional justice system and tried in a courtroom where the key players — ranging from the clerk to the attorneys to the jurors — are fellow high school students. Following a presentation of the facts and details of the case, members of the jury convene to reach a consensus: which, if any, of the interventions suggested by the attorneys would be most suitable for the defendant?

For this particular shoplifting case, we hashed out the merits of the ideas mentioned by the defense and prosecution, carefully analyzing their potential impact on Mateo and the victim. Seeing these measures to be insufficient independently, I recommended a job education program; I immediately clashed with another juror who thought counseling might be more effective. For a few minutes, we diligently made our cases, seeking to advance the civic interest of restorative justice for Mateo and his community over our personal pride. I described how Mateo would derive a sense of financial responsibility from the program, encouraging him to save up for his own purchases instead of shoplifting. We ultimately compromised on an alternative that dovetailed both of our proposals. Even as we dissented, we dissented respectfully — at the end of the day, we were playing for the same team.

I look back on my experiences with Peer Court as the first time I appreciated the importance of civil discourse, an essential force of empathy and transformative discussion in an era of ideological tribalism. Earlier this year, Congress grappled with the question of whether President Trump undermined justice when he allegedly solicited support from the Ukrainian president to investigate election rivals (Baker). Just as the other student and I played the role of jurors in Mateo’s Peer Court trial, U.S. senators played an analogous role as jurors in an impeachment tribunal, called upon to perform their constitutional duty to check the powers of the executive branch. However, their courtroom climate differed greatly.

While Republicans accused Democrats of weaponizing impeachment for political gain, Democrats equated Republicans’ refusal to subpoena witnesses with an orchestrated cover-up (Cheney, Desiderio). At one point, House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler and Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow locked horns, branding each other “liars” and traitors (Collins). When the rancor and finger-pointing had reached a crescendo, Chief Justice John Roberts stepped in to mediate. Reminding squabblers that they belonged to the world’s greatest deliberative body, he said sternly, “One reason it has earned that title is because its members avoid speaking in a manner, and using language, that is not conducive to civil discourse.”

Nevertheless, the trial devolved into partisan fanfare, culminating in President Trump’s acquittal upon Democrats’ failure to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority. While Senate Democrats voted unanimously to charge Trump with both abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, only one of 53 Republicans supported his conviction for either — highlighting sharp factionalism among senators who took an oath to deliver “impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws” (Procedure and Guidelines).

In these proceedings, party affiliation rather than an evaluation of the facts drove judgment, and the ideal of civil discourse as demonstrated in Peer Court was obfuscated by hyperpartisanship. While differences in opinion are unavoidable and in fact valuable, debate should never stray from the norms of collegiality and tolerance. It is vital that our nation’s highest leaders cooperate to find middle ground, dialogue productively, and recognize that members of Congress remain beholden to the Constitution, not their respective political persuasions.

Civil discourse is the only recourse for our decaying democratic institutions. Its absence is symptomatic of the same polarization that has led to congressional gridlock over response to the coronavirus pandemic, underscored the exigence of filibuster reform, and caused the longest U.S. government shutdown in history. In Peer Court, our conversation in the deliberation room at Mateo’s trial may have represented a challenge to my perspective — but it was one that we took in stride as an opportunity to find a happy medium, impressing upon me a newfound respect for the power of our voices in the pursuit of understanding.

Works Cited

Baker, Peter. “Impeachment Trial Updates: Senate Acquits Trump, Ending Historic Trial.” The New York Times, 5 Feb. 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/us/politics/impeachment-vote.html.

Cheney, Kyle and Andrew Desiderio. “‘Corrupt scheme and cover-up’: Schiff lays out the case for impeachment.” Politico, 22 Jan. 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/22/senate-impeachment-trial-opening-arguments-witnesses-102065.

Collins, Sean. “Chief Justice John Roberts called for decorum as impeachment devolved into fight over who lies more.” Vox, 22 Jan. 2020, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/1/22/21076738/john-roberts-impeachment-trump-lawyers.

“Procedure and Guidelines for Impeachment in the United States Senate.” U.S. Government Publishing Office, 15 Aug. 1986, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CDOC-99sdoc33/pdf/CDOC-99sdoc33.pdf.

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