Several years ago, Roanoke lawyer Mike Pace was sitting at the dinner table with his wife Nancy and daughters Maggi and Cate.
They were talking about Maggi’s social studies class in school; the kids were studying the different branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial.
But as he talked with his daughter, Pace realized that schools taught how the government works, but not why it works. Students weren’t getting a sense of how the rule of law operates in the United States. Pace developed an idea about how to fix that.
With the Roanoke Bar Association, he launched a Rule of Law pilot project in 2009, recruiting in local lawyers, who fanned out to schools across the Roanoke Valley.
Pace had served as president of the Virginia Bar Association in 2008, and he sold them on the idea.
With the muscle and manpower of the VBA and the financial backing of the Virginia Law Foundation, the project spread to other parts of the state, with lawyers and judges picking up the chalk and spreading the project’s message in Virginia’s schools.
What do they teach? According to the website of what is now the VLF/VBA Rule of Law Project, the goal is to share the message that, under the rule of law, the people make the laws, which are to be fairly and equally applied to everyone. People agree to obey those laws, because there can be no legitimate government without the consent of the governed. The rule of law is the tie that binds citizens together as a nation of diverse people. That’s the why that may be missing from civics classes.
Bar groups in other states have taken a look at the project and followed Virginia’s lead. Pace and Tim Isaacs, who serves as the project’s director of education, have been taking the message to Europe and other international venues.
Last fall, Roanoke College established the Center for Teaching the Rule of Law; Pace serves as its CEO, and Isaacs is the center’s vice president.
On Jan. 25 in Williamsburg, the VBA bestowed its highest award, the Gerald L. Baliles Distinguished Service Award, to Pace for his service to the association and for his signature achievement, the Rule of Law Project. Past recipients include such luminaries as Baliles himself (who presented the award), Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.; 4th Circuit Judge Roger L. Gregory; and Supreme Court Justices Harry L. Carrico, Leroy R. Hassell Sr. and Elizabeth B. Lacy, among others.
Pace was typically modest when he accepted the award, saying he did so on behalf of all the people who had been involved in the project.
But his idea remains bold. The stated mission of the VLF/VBA Rule of Law Project is nothing less than “to change fundamentally the way the rule of law is taught in America’s schools.”
Thanks to Pace, they are on their way. Well done, sir, well done.