Through this lesson, the student will come to understand the history and role
of the Supreme Court, particularly in light of famous court rulings and the make
up of the court.
The United States Supreme Court was officially established with the ratification
of the Constitution in 1789. The Constitution, however, does not go into great
detail about the Court's function so, much consideration has been necessary in
the past two centuries to determine its purview.
The Supreme Court is the
highest court in the nation, and therefore is the primary overseer of the judicial
branch of the government, which, alongside the legislative branch and executive
branch, is a key component of a system of checks and balances.
to the other two branches, though, the Supreme Court's responsibilities are relatively
straightforward, with its most significant being judicial review. This process
imbues the Court with the awesome power of determining whether existing laws are
Yet the concept of judicial review is not directly expressed
in the Constitution. It was envisioned and articulated by Chief Justice John Marshall
in 1803 in the landmark case Marbury v. Madison.
Marshall saw it as critical
to a working democracy that the Court possesses the ability to determine a law's
constitutionality; otherwise, the legislative branch, which creates the laws,
would hold too much power, or in the words of Marshall, have a "real and
The constitution does not stipulate how many
justices may sit on the bench, but since 1869 the Supreme Court has maintained
nine -one chief justice and eight associate justices. When a vacancy appears,
a new justice is appointed by the president and approved by a majority vote in
the Senate. An odd number is needed to break ties.
Once appointed, the justices
serve for life, unless illness, retirement or illegal or unethical conduct force
them out (the latter of which has never been done in the Court's history).
The Court's process of determining a law unconstitutional is remarkably long and
thorough. First, the Court must select cases to consider that are submitted from
the lower courts. In the eyes of the justices, these cases must present a vital
Next, the Court closely reviews briefs submitted by
the lawyers representing the individual cases. Then, the lawyers present oral
arguments to the Court for further consideration of the case, during which the
justices participate in intensive analysis and discussion.
Court writes an opinion, which is a detailed explanation of the decision they
reached in the case. This process is long and painstaking and usually involves
considerable examination and reconsideration of the case.
Once an opinion
is completed, it then becomes binding, or law.The document that results is referred
to as majority opinion.
Overall, the Supreme Court has had an immeasurable
impact on the American political system and way of life. Its existence has helped
maintain fairness and balance in the United States government, and its decisions
have in some way affected virtually every member of society.
1. Either individually or in groups, have the students carefully read the background
information provided (printer-friendly
PDF), the glossary of relevant terms (printer-friendly
PDF) and Article III, section 1 of the Constitution.
2. Divide the
class into groups of 3-4 students each.
3. Next, distribute the list of
noteworthy Supreme Court cases (printer-friendly
PDF) to each student.
4. Then ask the groups to determine the relevance
of each decision to current society or to their own lives by using a scale of
1-5 (from critically important to insignificant).
5. After the groups have
concluded on a number from the scale for a particular case, have them justify
how they arrived at each decision (either orally to the class or in writing).
For example, one group may assign a "4" to Miranda v. Arizona
and justify the decision by stating that since they themselves have never committed
crimes before and have no intention of ever doing so, the case is insignificant
to their lives.
However, another group may assign a "1" to the
case, explaining that a young person must be informed of his/her rights at the
point of arrest, no matter how minor the offense, to ensure his/her own due process
(fair treatment) by the authorities. The group may also argue that mistakes can
be made by law enforcement officials, and so knowing one's rights is crucial to
protecting oneself from false or erroneous accusation.
Another group may
assign Korematsu v. United States a "5," since they may see the treatment
of Japanese Americans during World War II as far removed from their current lives,
while a different group may argue for it receiving a "2," since they
could see possible analogues to the way certain foreigners are treated today in
light of the country's concerns about terrorism.
6. Discuss the responses
as a class, attempting to arrive at the understanding that each case is complex
and, depending on social and historical forces, could have various applications
to the world.
Have students research the Supreme Court nominations from the last 5 presidents.
Have the appointments been marked with any rancor? Do conservative presidents
nominate conservative justices? Do the liberals nominate liberals? Are there any