It isn't just that two-thirds of Americans can't name one U.S. Supreme Court justice, or that a majority of them can't list the three branches of government.
No, said U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy, it's that the "virtual ignorance" of the American people on matters of government and its constitutional powers and prohibitions is a threat not only to the uninformed, but to the well-informed.
"Education is the central tenet of a functioning democracy," Molloy said Thursday afternoon in Sentinel High School's Margaret Johnson Theater, a fact his audience of Montana teachers - many of them civics and government teachers - know well.
Molloy was one of numerous keynote speakers at the annual gathering of Montana educators during the two-day Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers education conference in Missoula, which continues Friday.
The judge has presided over some of the most controversial federal cases within the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' jurisdiction, which includes Montana. It was Molloy who in the fall of 2010 ordered the recently delisted gray wolf back under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act, a ruling that infuriated ranchers, hunters, outdoors groups and politicians on both sides.
(A federal law again delisted the wolf and banned further court challenges, and that law has been appealed to the 9th Circuit. On Tuesday, the court declined a request for an emergency injunction to halt wolf hunts in the Rocky Mountains.)
Molloy could not comment on that case or others surrounding the gray wolf, but used other examples of controversial court rulings to show how ignorance of the functions of government can breed hostility.
The W.R. Grace and Co. trial, for one.
In 2009, a federal jury found W.R. Grace executives not guilty in a criminal trial alleging the company knew about the widespread poisoning of workers and residents of Libby. The verdict shocked many, while others let their anger boil over.
"The animosity about that verdict was palpable and the Internet spewed vitriol and cast aspersions against the jurors," said Molloy. "U.S. marshals were alerted to threats of harm to jurors and the court, and paid visits to several individuals who were ready and willing to be judge, jury, jailer and executioner."
In a well-functioning democracy, educated people can disagree about the outcomes of controversial cases, he said, but it's largely ignorance of the functions of courts and their juries that can lead to threats and even violence.
Ignorance in the political arena, Molloy added, has led to "questionable civility" in our political debates.
In the cases regarding the gray wolf Molloy has ruled on, never was the question whether the wolf was "good or bad," or if there were "too many or too few."
Those cases had to do with "federalism, statutory construction and constitutional questions about the separation of powers."
People who are educated about the court system - the federal and state courts, and the appeals process - can and should argue their points from a position of knowledge, he said.
With 2.37 million people in federal or state prisons, and with 106 million criminal and civil cases brought to state district courts every year, the stakes are high. Students need to know the critical workings of one-third of their government - the courts, Molloy said.
"Only then can we have a reasoned debate. And we're only going to have a reasoned debate if you teachers arm your students with the ability to become knowledgeable and critical thinkers."
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.