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Fourth Circuit Essay Contest Winners Honored at Constitution Day Program in Richmond

October 17, 2023

On September 21, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recognized the winners of the 2023 Fourth Circuit Essay Contest during a Constitution Day program at the Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Courthouse in Richmond, Virginia.

Students in grades 9 through 12 throughout the five states within the Circuit were asked to consider the Constitution in light of the Supreme Court's holdings in Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) (striking down a state law that prohibited teaching of foreign languages in public schools) and Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) (invalidating a state law that forbade teaching evolution in public schools).  Students shared their thoughts on the question: "In light of Meyer and later cases, may a state, consistent with the protections afforded by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, prohibit the teaching of certain subjects?”

The first-place winner, Jackson Hamilton, received a $2,000 prize for his essay, in which he argued that “whether a specific law restricting the teaching of content is unconstitutional depends on a careful analysis on whether or not the law unduly abridges either the liberty offered by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the protection of freedom of speech found in the First Amendment.”  A rising senior at Orange County High School in Orange, Virginia, Jackson was joined by his mother and father, Thomas and Elisabeth Hamilton.

Jackson Hamilton

The third-place winner, Ari Cerja, received a $1,000 prize for his essay, in which he contended that restrictions on the teaching of certain subjects “infringe upon the principles of free expression, hinder intellectual growth, and impede the development of well-informed citizens.”  A recent graduate of First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Ari was joined by his mother and stepfather, Tina Cerja and Keath Beattie, and one of his siblings, ”Cross” Cerja.

Ari Cerja

Chief Judge Diaz also recognized the second-place winner and recipient of a $1,500 award, Carson Gilmore, a recent graduate of Blacksburg High School in Blacksburg, Virginia.

After acknowledging the “hyper partisanship” of today’s society and the lack of discourse that has been exacerbated by online platforms, Chief Judge Diaz expressed that the young people who presented their essays at the program gave him “great hope.”  He remarked on the critical role of civics education in “getting our republic back on track,” and reminded participants of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proclamation that the “real safeguard” of democracy is education.

Chief Judge Diaz

Chief Judge Diaz concluded with a message of optimism, quoting Senator Mitt Romney’s recent statement that “it’s time for a new generation of leaders” who will “shape the world they will be living in.”

The celebration continued with a reception in the Court's library and the presentation of a plaque with the addition of Ari’s, Carson’s, and Jackson’s names to memorialize the annual winners of the Fourth Circuit essay contest.  

Jackson and Ari Shaking Hands

Watch the video of the ceremony at this link: 2023 Constitution Day Program

Read the winning essays at this link: 2023 Student Essay Contest