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You Be the Judge
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Lesson Plan

This lesson is designed for social studies, debate, language arts, government/citizenship, and current events classes, grades 9-12.

Lesson Objectives

In this lesson, students will:
  • Research and evaluate a case recently considered by the U.S. Supreme Court that reviews the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act and assesses environmental and business interests.
  • Debate case arguments with classmates using data collected from research activities.
  • Analyze case information and write about the decision they would make if they were members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Related National Standards


Standard 3: Understands the sources, purposes, and functions of law, and the importance of the rule of law for the protection of individual rights and the common good

Standard 18: Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights

Language Arts
Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Standard 10: Understands the characteristics and components of the media

Thinking and Reasoning

Standard 1: Understands and applies the basic principles of presenting and argument

Standard 2: Understands and applies the basic principles of login and reasoning

Estimated Time to Complete Lesson

Part 1: One 90-minute period
Part 2: Two 90-minute periods
Part 3: Two 90-minute periods

Materials Needed

  • Handout: Data Collection Guide (PDF File)
  • Copy of the approximately 15-minute 12/20/02 'NOW with Bill Moyers' story on the court case related to the Clean Water Act. (Note: A free transcript of this story is available on the NOW Web site. Teachers may also tape the broadcast off-air and use it in the classroom for one year. Alternatively, programs are available for purchase from ShopPBS (
  • TV/VCR
  • Internet access, or copies of relevant pages
  • Optional Handout: Division of Labor (PDF File)
  • Optional Handout: Peer Work Group Evaluation Forms (PDF File)
  • Optional Handout: Case Studies: The First Amendment

Backgrounder for Teachers

This lesson explores the role of the U.S. judicial system in interpreting American law. In this instance, students will conduct an in-depth study of a case recently considered by the U.S. Supreme Court that raises issues of environmental v. business interests in connection with the Clean Water Act. The NOW Web site summarizes the main provisions of the Clean Water Act. Additional information is provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (

In a nutshell, the Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of pollution into waters of the United States. Some language from this law has been interpreted to ban the release of dredged or fill materials into certain wetlands unless a permit is obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Normal farming" activities are exempt from these requirements if they involve an ongoing farming operation and do not change the use of the area in question.

In the case featured in this lesson, Angelo Tsakopoulos is part owner of an 8,000+ acre ranch in California's Central Valley. He wanted to convert some of his rangeland used for cattle grazing into more-profitable vineyards and orchards that could be subdivided into smaller parcels and put up for sale. But vineyards and orchards have extended root systems that need water to penetrate deeper than the restrictive soil on the ranch would allow. So Tsakopoulos used a common farming technique known as "deep-ripping" where bulldozers drag rippers, consisting of 4-7 foot metal prongs, through the earth breaking up the restrictive layers of soil. He converted approximately 924 acres of land.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that such activity could not be undertaken without a permit because part of the property he was working contained wetlands, protected under the Clean Water Act. After several incidents where Tsakopoulos was caught "deep-ripping" without a permit and warned to stop, the government issued an order finding he had violated the Clean Water Act.

Tsakopoulos took the government to court, challenging its authority to regulate his "deep-ripping" activities on his land. He argued that his activities were exempt from the Clean Water Act because they are normal farming activities and that turning over native, productive soils does not introduce a "pollutant". The district court found that he had filled approximately 2 acres of wetlands, which resulted in 358 violations of the Clean Water Act. As a penalty, the court gave him the choice of either paying $1.5 million in fines or paying $500,000 and restoring 4 acres of wetlands. With one minor exception, the appeals court upheld the lower court's ruling.

This case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on December 10, 2002. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a longtime acquaintance of Mr. Tsakopoulos, did not participate in the Court's consideration of this case. After hearing arguments from both sides, the justices voted in a 4-4 tie. Under the court's rules, a tie affirms the lower court's decision, which results in a victory for federal regulators and environmental groups who want the Clean Water Act to maintain its authority to prevent the filling of wetlands. Despite the result of the tie vote in this case, the decision is not binding as a precedent for other cases. In other words, it is as if the Supreme Court never considered the case. In order to change the way the Clean Water Act is interpreted on a national scale, business interests who oppose the government's regulation of their activities will have to wait for another case challenging the Clean Water Act's jurisdiction to make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Be sure to see the NOW Web site's background resources related to this case, including argument summaries from different perspectives.

For more information on this case, wetlands, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Clean Water Act, please see the Related Resources section of this lesson.

Assumed Student Prior Knowledge

Students should understand the general process and various levels within the U.S. legal system (i.e. district, appellate, Supreme Court, etc.). It would also be helpful if students had some background on the Clean Water Act. Finally, students need to understand what is meant by the term "stakeholder".

Teaching Strategy

Part 1: Introducing the Case (one 90-minute class period)

1. Stimulate student interest in this lesson by writing the following question on the board: "If you had to choose between making a living and preserving the environment, specifically, water quality, which would you choose and why?"

2. At the beginning of class, give students 2-3 minutes to write their answer to this question. Remind them that they will share their ideas as part of the class discussion, so they need to be clear and specific when answering.

3. Facilitate a brief group discussion on how students answered the question. Focus on allowing students to share their ideas and opinions with one another while limiting the time spent debating points of view. Close the discussion by pointing out that students have various perspectives and that there are different reasons for why people answered as they did.

4. Next, introduce students to the court case that will be the focus of the activity by distributing the Data Collection Guide provided with this lesson and explaining that they will be watching a 15-minute news story on a court case that pits environmental concerns against business interests. Have students use the handout to take detailed notes on information presented in the report.

5. After watching the video, allow students to work in small groups to compare data. Then facilitate a short discussion about the segment, pointing out main ideas and data related to the case. In this discussion, it will be especially important to identify the case's key issues, stakeholders, and the potential impact of the case's legal decision on farming, water quality, and/or other aspects of American society.

Part 2: Investigating the Case (two 90-minute class periods)

1. With a basic foundation of the court case and its related issues, students are now prepared to investigate the case more fully, fill in any knowledge gaps, and develop arguments for various sides of the issues. Begin by reviewing the issues of the case and making a list of the stakeholders (i.e. Mr. Tsakopoulos, environmentalists, government regulators, business interest groups, etc.). Post this list in a place where students can see it throughout the course of the activity.

2. Divide students into groups of 3-4. Ask each group to identify the issue(s) from the case related to one of the stakeholders on the list, and then to develop an argument detailing that stakeholder's viewpoint. (Be sure the distribution of stakeholder assignments is balanced among the groups.) In order to develop the most logical, convincing argument possible, each group will need to gather more data. In addition to reviewing details of the case at hand, students will find it helpful to seek out related cases (i.e. those involving business vs. environmental interests, particularly concerning water resources) heard previously by the U.S. Supreme Court since they provide important arguments that could be tapped for this assignment. Students will also find useful information by looking at lower court rulings. The Related Resources section of this lesson provides some helpful Web sites to help with student research.

NOTE: To assist with classroom management of groups, teachers can use the Division of Labor and Peer Work Group Evaluation forms provided with this lesson plan.

3. Each group should prepare a written statement that they can share with the class. It should explain all of the following:

  • The stakeholder they represent
  • The issue(s) related to that stakeholder
  • The facts of the case that support the viewpoint of the stakeholder they are representing
  • The specifics of the Clean Water Act as it relates to their stakeholder/issue(s)
  • Documentation of other cases similar to theirs and the outcome (if positive)
  • A statement about how a legal decision either for/against this stakeholder could impact all Americans
  • Any other relevant arguments, facts, or information that could convince others to agree with their point of view
Remind students that they will be presenting the information from this document to their classmates as they debate the case in the next part of the lesson.

Part 3: You Be the Judge (two 90-minute class periods)

1. After the groups have prepared their statements, allow each to present their work to the class. (You may wish to have stakeholder groups from one side of the case present first, and then those from the other side.) Encourage students to take brief notes as they listen to each group so they will be prepared to challenge ideas. After each presentation, allow students to question the group about specific ideas and/or present data or facts that are contrary to what the group has presented. Set a time limit for debate so that all groups will have the opportunity to present during the class period. (i.e. If there are 5 groups, allow a maximum of 5-10 minutes of debate to assure that all groups can present during the class period). Remind and encourage students to present debate arguments based upon the facts and ideas they found when researching the case.

2. When debate has concluded, remind students that while the case has a number of sides, it basically boils down to a conflict between environmental and business interests. Explain to them that their next task will be to play the role of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice who has considered all of the information that students have researched, heard, and debated in the activity. Each student must now render a decision and prepare a written case study with the following information:

  • Name of the Case (Borden Ranch Partnership et al v. United States Army Corps of Engineers et al)
  • Issue(s) of the case written in the form of a question
  • Their decision written in the form of a 1-2 sentence answer to the Issue(s) question
  • Reasoning for the decision written in paragraph form, with facts specifically stated
NOTE: See the optional Case Studies: The First Amendment handout provided with this lesson for examples of case studies written in this format, with the addition of background information.

3. When written case studies are completed, place students in small groups to share their decisions. Explain to students that this group discussion is a time to share ideas, not to debate them.

Assessment Recommendations

1. Students could be given participation points/grades for discussion and debate activities throughout the lesson.

2. Students could receive a completion grade/points for finishing the Data Collection Guide.

3. Students could be graded using a rubric or scoring guide on the group written statement and/or the individually written case study.

4. If the Division of Labor and Peer Work Group Evaluation Forms are used, students could receive a completion grade submitting these with their group work. If desired, part of each student's individual grade could be taken from the results of the Peer Work Group Evaluation Forms.

Extension Ideas

1. Be sure to review NOW's Starter Activities and Take Action ideas related to this lesson's topic.

2. As students come across various research items related to the case, have them collect the articles and bring them in. These items could be placed in a collage as part of a large display featuring each student's written case study. The display could be placed in a prominent place in the school and have a response area where students from other classes could write their ideas about the case.

3. Students from the class could be interviewed about the facts of the case for the school news. This interview (or segments of it) could then be presented to all students so they could learn about the case. Students in the class could then conduct a school-wide survey about the case to see how the majority of students in the school would rule if they were members of the Supreme Court. These findings could be compiled and presented as a feature story on a later school news broadcast.

4. To create ties to the Bill of Rights, students could investigate other issues that have been placed before the Supreme Court in the past. Topics such as prayer in schools, gun control, segregation, and freedom of speech might be of particular interest to students. Students could then debate these decisions or conduct mock trials so they can explore them in more detail.

5. Investigate how U.S. Supreme Court decisions have impacted Constitutional issues, such as the First Amendment. This lesson's optional handout outlines several First Amendment-related Case Studies that could be analyzed in greater depth. Build student interest in the First Amendment by having them take NOW's Freedom of Speech Quiz ( Study could also focus on other topics of special interest to students, such as prayer in the schools, music on the Internet, segregation, school vouchers, the 2nd Amendment and gun control. All of these areas will provide fruitful ground for in-class debates and mock trial presentations.

Related Resources

A variety of sites have been provided below to save time and assist with research. How many sites to use and which ones have been left up to you.

The Case of "Borden Ranch Partnership and Angelo K. Tsakopoulos v. United States Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency"

NOTE: Please review these resources before sending your students to them. Several contain significant legal language that could be challenging for many high school readers. An effort has been made to provide a variety of resources, including actual legal documents, synopses, and articles written for laymen. The NOW Web site provides simplified summaries of the arguments related to this case that are good starting points for student research. Additional resources can be found by using the name of the case (in the header above) to conduct a search on any Internet search engine.

FindLaw Case Directory
By scrolling down to December 10, 2002, you can find a summary of the issues of this lesson's featured case, plus links to complete decisions filed on the case, and full briefs filed on behalf of both sides.

Legal Brief on Behalf of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers et al
The U.S. Department of Justice provides the text of a legal brief outlining the issues and arguments of the government against the rancher in the case featured in this lesson. Plowed Under
A National Review article details the case featured in this lesson in layman's terms, with a slant towards the business interests (Mr. Tsakopoulos) in this case.

Summary Brief of the Opinion Issued by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals
The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University summarizes the appellate decision related to this lesson's featured case.

Supreme Court Docket Report
Appellate attorneys Mayer, Brown, Rowe, and Maw (also co-counsel to Mr. Tsakopoulos) provide a brief synopsis of this lesson's featured case, including the circumstances of the case, its judicial history, related cases, and potential impact of the case.

Tie Affirms Clean Water Act's Reach
This Environmental Observatory article talks about the environmental impact of this lesson's featured case now that the U.S. Supreme Court's review of the case resulted in a 4-4 tie.

Environmental Resources

America's Wetlands in Danger
This press release from the Natural Resources Defense Council talks about a report detailing the important role that wetlands play, and how a 2001 Supreme Court decision threatens wetlands by limiting Clean Water Act protections.

Environmental Protection Agency
This site contains information about the Clean Water Act. In addition, it provides information about The Year of Clean Water (October 2002-October 2003), monitoring water quality, the wetlands, and much more.

U.S. Supreme Court

Links to United States Supreme Court Resources Compiled at Penn State, this site provides access to the U.S. Constitution, biographies of the current Supreme Court Justices, and allows users to research thousands of Supreme Court decisions. In addition, it features 325 Great Supreme Court Cases that include opinions that changed history.

Supreme Court of the United States
Official site of the United States Supreme Court includes general information, an automated docket where users can research cases pending and decided, and justice opinions.

Supreme Court and
This site contains up-to-the-minute news and analysis concerning Supreme Court decisions and pending cases. Visitors can read articles about cases, search a database of previous cases, and access a legal dictionary.

About the Author

Lisa Prososki is an independent educational consultant who taught middle school and high school social studies, English, reading, and technology courses for twelve years. Prososki has worked with PBS TeacherSource and has authored many lesson plans for various PBS programs over the past five years. In addition to conducting workshops for teachers at various state and national conventions, Prososki has also worked as an editor and authored one book.

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