Image: David Souter
AP
Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter worries that Americans' growing ignorance of government threatens the independence of judges.
updated 8/1/2009 9:16:35 PM ET 2009-08-02T01:16:35

Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter urged the nation's lawyers Saturday to help revitalize civic education, warning that the failure of many Americans to understand how the government works poses a serious threat.

"There is a danger to judicial independence when people have no understanding of how the judiciary fits into the constitutional scheme," Souter said in his keynote address to the American Bar Association's annual meeting.

Souter pointed to a poll showing two-thirds of Americans can't name the three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial. He said that has to change to keep the nation's judges independent of political pressures.

"We cannot stand up for the judiciary by leaving two-thirds of the American people ignorant that there are three branches," he said.

Souter, who retired this year, received prolonged applause from members of the bar association, the nation's leading lawyers group.

The New Hampshire native said he learned the lessons of democracy and the functions of the three branches of government as a boy at New England town meetings, adding "for those of you from the hinterland" that such gatherings are "the most radical exercise of American democracy that you can find."

"It didn't matter if someone were rich or poor, young or old, sensible or foolish," he said, meetings were governed by "fundamental fairness."

Souter said a rebirth of civic education that teaches the lessons he learned at those New England town meetings is needed to ensure the nation has "judges who stand up for individual rights against the popular will."

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