Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Advocating in the Judicial Branch

It's funny that when some people think of "advocacy" they think almost instantly of lawyers. In fact, many definitions of "advocate" at indicate that an advocate is someone who pleads for a cause in a court of law. And yet ironically, the judicial branch of government has been, in many ways, the most closed off to the type of citizen advocacy I'm usually talking about.

This makes it doubly interesting that President Obama has decided to nominate someone who he admires because she has "an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live" (from one of the Washington Post articles on this topic). If you think about it, in the way the world really works, citizens want to avoid the judicial system at all costs. But it sounds like President Obama and his pick for the Supreme Court might actually be looking at our court system as a venue in which the barriers and obstacles that citizens many face are overcome. I'm wondering if this will be possible in an environment where citizens are rarely effectively heard?

Certainly, as was seen in the case of the U.S. Senate's refusal to ratify the nomination of Judge Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, citizens can have a say in who might actually be placed on the court. But in that case, their voices were heard by their duly elected representatives in the Senate.

What I find interesting about this choice, and many of the choices of the Obama Administration, is that he and his team seem to be bringing that ethos of "citizen engagement" to all levels of governance -- even a branch that has traditionally been almost completely removed from the input of "regular people." I wonder if it will work? I guess we'll have to wait and see!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Congress: Coming Today to a Neighborhood Near You!

Well, it's quiet in DC this week, but that doesn't mean the policy work isn't happening! In fact, this week is the Memorial Day District Work Period, and members of Congress and many of their DC staff are in their legislative districts and states looking for feedback from their constituents.

Following are a few tips for providing that feedback in a meaningful way (I mean, beyond "stop being such an idiot"):
  • Find out about townhall meetings: Most elected officials are holding townhall meetings over the next few days. These are open to the public and are often held at local civic institutions, such as a library, school auditorium or city hall. Call their offices (you can find numbers at, ask when and where the next meeting is -- and attend! You'll be surprised at how few people actually show up -- and how much personalized attention you can get.
  • Craft a personalized, thoughtful, relevant message: What messages meet this criteria? Specifically messages that explain how you personally are impacted by a policy issue (personalized), relate to the elected official's constituents (relevant) and don't contain any swear words (thoughtful) -- not one. You'll also want to do your best to ask for something specific, such as asking the official to cosponsor a specific piece of legislation, support funding for a certain program or even just agree to have a more in-depth meeting on a policy issue.
  • Learn about your legislators: If you want to influence policy makers, you need to know a little about them. Spend some time over the next week looking up bills they've introduced at and reviewing their webpages at and You might be surprised at what you find -- they may already be on your side!
More ideas and resources at